KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's underfunded human rights commission may
at least try to secure the site of a reported mass grave of hundreds of captured
Taliban fighters suffocated in shipping containers in last fall's war, the commission
chairman said Tuesday.
"The commission, honestly, is not in a position to do what is needed," Sima Samar said of her 3-month-old independent body. She said it would look to others to do more of the investigation immediately.
The U.N. mission here and the Afghan government, meanwhile, had no immediate public comment on the latest news report on the container deaths, an article published Sunday in Newsweek.
A spokesman for the militia movement blamed for the deaths said he, too, would have no immediate reaction, not having seen the article. But he said that mass graves had become "an unfortunate phenomenon" on all sides in Afghanistan's wars.
First witness reports of the deaths emerged late last year, when surviving prisoners and humanitarian organizations told journalists that Taliban fighters captured in the surrender of the northern city of Kunduz had been jammed into unventilated metal shipping containers to be trucked to a prison 200 miles away at Shibergan, and that large numbers died en route.
Forces of the anti-Taliban northern alliance, specifically Gen. Rashid Dostum's militia, which worked closely with U.S. special forces advisers in the war, were alleged to be responsible. The capture of Kunduz was a key event in the U.S.-led victory over the Taliban.
On May 1, the U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights reported its specialists had investigated a mass grave where it said hundreds of the victims had been dumped. On May 7, the U.N. mission here confirmed that a U.N. forensic team, including Physicians for Human Rights specialists, had determined the apparent mass grave held bodies of men who had suffocated.
Newsweek said a confidential U.N. report it obtained quoted a witness as saying 960 prisoners died in this way.
It also said the U.N. memorandum recommended halting the investigation until it was determined whether Afghanistan would proceed with war crimes trials, or a non-prosecutorial "truth commission," or some other approach to documenting and dealing with massive human rights violations during years of war here.
"We were discussing this issue" - of trials or truth commissions - "a few days ago," Samar, the human rights panel head, said Tuesday. Now, she said, she would also study the latest news report and "I will discuss the issue with the commissioners tomorrow, to see what could be done."
She doubted they could do much. "We are still struggling to get an office and computers and such," she said. "The commission's priority may be to protect the site for others."
Even that may not be easy, since the site lies in territory controlled and guarded jealously by Dostum's forces against encroachment by central authority.
"Mass graves is an unfortunate phenomenon," Dostum's spokesman, Faiz Zaki, said by satellite telephone from northern Afghanistan. "There have been too many cases of people killed. The Taliban did it, the anti-Taliban people did it, and they were buried in mass graves because there was no time to bury them in individual graves."
Zaki said he would have no immediate comment involving the latest allegations of captives suffocated in containers.
Mass killings have characterized the fighting in northern Afghanistan during
two decades of war. The United Nations has investigated reports that as many as
2,000 Taliban were slaughtered in 1997 around the main northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
A year later, the Taliban were accused of massacring thousands of ethnic Hazaras
in revenge when the hardline Islamic militia recaptured the city.
Copyright 2002 The Associated Press