The Northern Alliance and US bombers yesterday mounted what they hope will
be the final push on the Taliban-held city of Kunduz after a negotiated surrender
fell apart almost as soon as it was signed.
The intensity of the fighting and the prospect of the imminent fall of the
city led to fears that it could deteriorate into a bloodbath. The British and
Pakistani governments joined the Red Cross and the UN in calling for restraint
by the advancing forces.
Amid widespread confusion over whether both sides were committed to a peaceful
resolution, the Taliban's commander in Kunduz insisted last night that his troops
- including Arab fighters - would surrender tomorrow. Mullah Fahzal, the most
senior Taliban figure left in northern Afghanistan, said he was confident that
the 12,000 Afghan Taliban and 2,000 foreign fighters who have been trapped in
Kunduz since the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif two weeks ago would agree to give up their
The US, which has special forces attached to the Northern Alliance to act as
a restraint, is desperately seeking to avoid a massacre in front of the international
media of the Arab, Pakistani and other foreigners who joined the Taliban forces
But Washington is equally determined that these foreign fighters, some of whom
it suspects of belonging to al-Qaida, will not be allowed to escape as part of
a negotiated surrender. The intention is to imprison them, interrogate them and
then decide their fate.
US military planners are watching Kunduz closely, since its fall would release
resources for the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the south. It would also open the
way for an aid corridor from the north.
As part of mopping up operations elsewhere in Afghanistan, Northern Alliance
forces launched a heavy artillery attack close to Kabul yesterday to flush out
at least 1,200 Taliban, Arab and Pakistani fighters holed up in the mountains.
For several days alliance commanders in Maidan Shah, about 25 miles west of
Kabul, have tried to negotiate their surrender. But hundreds of alliance troops
yesterday unleashed rockets, mortar and artillery fire at the Taliban positions.
Despite fierce fighting the assault appeared to make little impact.
On the Kunduz front, the alliance rushed tanks and troops from other frontlines
to join the assault on the city. B-52 bombers flew over the frontline but dropped
their loads close to Kunduz itself. Panicked refugees streamed from the city.
Earlier two Taliban leaders signed an agreement with the Northern Alliance
warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostam at his fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif. US special
forces were in attendance.
Emerging from their talks, Gen Dostam said he would be sending 5,000 of his
soldiers to disarm the Taliban fighters and ensure security in the city.
A hand over of weapons and jeeps would take place tomorrow in the village of
Chardara, on the outskirts of Kunduz, aides added.
Gen Dostam said the Afghan Taliban would be disarmed and allowed to return
home to their villages. But he said the foreign fighters - including Arabs, Chechens,
Pakistanis, Uzbeks and Chinese Uyghurs - would be taken to his fortress where
they would be separated into terrorists and non-terrorists.
Chaos ensued when word of the agreement failed to reach Kunduz, more than 100
miles away. Taliban fighters opened up with mortars for the first time in a week
and the Northern Alliance forces sent in waves of tanks and troops in reply.
Adding to the confusion, Yunus Qanuni, who is emerging as one of the key figures
in the alliance, said: "We have tried to settle the issue of Kunduz through negotiation
but we have been forced to choose a military solution."
Pakistan's leader, General Pervez Musharraf, expressed concern over the fate
of Pakistanis fighting with the Taliban. He urged the Red Cross to do all it could
to prevent massacres of foreign fighters at the hands of the Afghans.
In a Downing Street briefing, Alastair Campbell said: "We do not want a bloodbath
in Kunduz, but nor do we want to let anyone escape so they can regroup and form
terrorist networks elsewhere."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001