Nov. 28, 2001. 09:55 PM
What led to bloodbath at Afghan fortress?
MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan (AP) — Corpses with bound hands, dust mixed with dried blood, spent mortar rounds littering fields where horses grazed: No part of this massive fortress was left unstained by death in one of the most ferocious battles of the war on the Taliban.
In a field strewn with about 50 bodies, an Associated Press photographer Wednesday saw that some corpses had their arms tied with cloth — contrary to claims by a key northern alliance commander that none had been tied up.
Full details may never be known of the uprising by Taliban who were being held prisoner at Qalai Janghi fortress near the city of Mazar-e Sharif or of the fierce assault that ended the rebellion. Red Cross workers on Wednesday began hauling bodies away, and with the remains likely went much of the evidence of what happened.
The questions include how the prisoners — including Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs and other non-Afghans — got access to weapons, and whether some prisoners were executed after northern alliance troops gained control or died in the battle.
Nearly all the Taliban prisoners involved in the uprising were killed, alliance officials say — perhaps around 450 fighters, though the precise number was uncertain.
The uprising was put down with the help of U.S. air strikes, U.S. special forces and other covert troops believed to be British. At the Pentagon on Wednesday, Rear-Admiral John Stufflebeem said American officials do not have a clear picture of what happened. ``There's a lot of questions that obviously need to be asked or answers that need to be obtained as to how that came about, or how that can be prevented in the future."
What is known is that the uprising began on Sunday and lasted three days — another chapter in the bloody history of Mazar-e Sharif, a city that has swapped hands repeatedly since 1997. It was the first major city to fall from Taliban control under the U.S. onslaught on Afghanistan aimed at rooting out Osama bin Laden and his terror network.
At the fortress, soldiers were seen cutting the bindings off the bodies with knives and scissors. One soldier used a piece of metal to pry gold fillings from a dead man's teeth. Bodies dotted the dusty ground and dry scrub of the compound, some falling together in trenches, many shoeless.
In another field, the bodies of many horses lay with gaping wounds.
The battle also brought the United States' first combat death in Afghanistan: CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann, whose body was recovered Wednesday. Five American soldiers were wounded when a U.S. bomb landed off-target.
Swaggering through the fortress Wednesday in a long brown robe cinched by a wide black leather belt, northern alliance Gen. Rashid Dostum insisted the prisoners were treated properly but had nonetheless rebelled.
"We did not tie them. We brought them here to be safer," he told reporters.
Dostum is one of Afghanistan's most feared and notorious warlords. When his fighters took Mazar-e Sharif from the Taliban in 1997, they threw prisoners into wells and tossed in grenades to finish them off, the United Nations reported. The Taliban settled the score when they recaptured the city in 1998; a UN report charged the Islamic militia with executing thousands of people, many under severe torture.
This time, the Taliban fighters were brought to the fortress as prisoners following the surrender of Kunduz, the Taliban's last northern bastion to the east. According to Dostum, the first apparent act of rebellion happened Saturday, when a Taliban prisoner detonated a grenade that killed two of his commanders and seriously injured another.
Dostum said he sent another general the next day to visit the prisoners and assure them they would be treated in accordance with international law.
"But they once again attacked my general, threw a grenade, attacked soldiers and took their guns," Dostum said.
Another soldier at the fort said he was on the field and that some of the prisoners were tied up when the fighting began.
During the journalists' visit, Dostum warned them to stay away from the southern section where the pro-Taliban prisoners had been held, including the field with the bodies. But some journalists went anyway.
The general said there were "dangerous people" at large who could be among the dead. "They are suicidal people and one can expect anything from them," Dostum said.
Northern alliance soldiers in the compound were seen later tossing a grenade into a gutter leading to a basement in one of the buildings, presumably to flush out any remaining prisoners. Other explosions rang out through the day at the fort, sending up clouds of black smoke — some from the many pieces of undetonated ordnance.
About 30 alliance fighters were killed and more than 200 wounded in the fighting, Dostum said. He declined to say how many prisoners were killed.
Earlier this week, Amnesty International called for an inquiry into the "proportionality of the response" by alliance fighters and U.S. and British military personnel.
Dostum said he was holding 6,000 more Taliban fighters from Kunduz. They were being taken to nearby Sheberghan, and the general promised they would be treated in a humane way.
Once the fighting started Sunday at the fortress, the prisoners seized a cache of weapons, holed themselves up in the southern part of the fortress and lobbed mortars toward the headquarters building that crowns the northern wall. To conserve ammunition, they fired only single shots from Kalashnikov rifles.
Hundreds of alliance fighters streamed toward the fortress and several dozen U.S. special forces troops were seen moving into the fortress and co-ordinating air strikes from outside.
The Americans wore desert camouflage and carried guns with laser scopes. Other troops, apparently British, did more to attempt to blend in — covering their faces with black-and-white checkered scarves.
On Tuesday, after a night of heavy air strikes, the remaining Taliban holdouts lobbed mortars at alliance forces. Some climbed trees inside the sprawling complex to take shots at troops outside.
Fighting died down later that day, after Dostum officials said they had seized the last mortar used by the prisoners.
At the fortress Wednesday, troops poked through burned-out metal cargo containers filled with weapons. Several tanks patrolled the area as mortar shells lay half-buried in the earth, surrounded by mud walls pockmarked with machine gun fire or blown away by air strikes.
Dostum later toured the area with a couple of surrendered Taliban leaders from Kunduz. Noorullah Noori, former governor of Balkh province where Mazar-e Sharif is located, claimed the revolt had not been planned.
He said he had told the fighters "to submit your guns and armaments to Gen. Dostum's forces" and surrender. "I feel sad about these events. It was really in vain," he said. "It shouldn't have happened."
The other official, Mullah Fazel, former Taliban deputy defence minister, refused to say anything at all as he sat with hands trembling and mouth appearing to mutter a silent prayer.