Britain and the US were facing growing international pressure last night to explain their role in the deaths of up to 400 Taliban prisoners who were killed by US warplanes and Northern Alliance fighters at a fortress outside the northern Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif.
As America was forced to apologize for the high death toll, the UN said its high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, would question the allied action during a visit to London tomorrow.
The former Irish president will call for alliance forces who have abused human rights to be barred from Afghanistan's future government.
The Pentagon was also investigating a Reuters report which said a senior Pashtun commander admitted executing 160 captured Taliban after a battle last week in the town of Takteh Pol, in southern Afghanistan, in the presence of US military personnel.
Northern alliance fighters try to pull out a golden tooth from the body of a pro-Taliban fighter in a fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2001. Several hundred prisoners, mostly foreign fighters fighting on the Taliban side captured part of the prison fortress Sunday, headquarters of Afghan warlord General Dostum, and were killed during three days of fighting which involved British and U.S. special forces. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)
The commander of forces loyal to Gul Agha, a former mojahedin governor of Kandahar, is quoted as saying: "We tried our best to persuade [the Taliban] to surrender before we attacked. But they replied with abuse so we had no choice. We executed around 160 Taliban that were captured. They were made to stand in a long line and five or six of our fighters used light machine guns on them."
The commander said seven or eight US military personnel, who had been filming the fighting, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the killings.
In an unrelated incident, earlier today the Pentagon announced that during the drop of humanitarian aid on Afghanistan, a woman and a child had been killed when a load landed on their house.
Britain and the US defended the action of American special forces who directed warplanes to bomb hundreds of Taliban prisoners at the Mazar fortress after an uprising. One British government source said: "We had to deal with a situation in which prisoners tried to break out with grenades and Kalashnikovs. That situation had to be dealt with and you cannot be too squeamish."
Kenton Keith, the chief US spokesman in Islamabad, said: "We are sorry that so many people did die in Mazar-i-Sharif." He insisted that the bombing was "not a massacre, not a reprisal", adding: "What happened in Mazar-i-Sharif was a pitched battle."
His response failed to satisfy human rights groups and opposition MPs who believe the US may have breached international law by bombing the Taliban forces, many of whom were tied up and unable to move. Human rights lawyers said that any response to an armed revolt by prisoners of war should be proportionate.
As Amnesty International called for a full investigation, the UN said its high commissioner for human rights will voice her disquiet over the bombings at a press conference in London tomorrow.
The UNHCR spokesman, José Diaz, said: "Mary Robinson has said one of the things that should be kept very much in mind is the necessity and proportionality [of military action]. This incident might provide an argument for developing this stance."
Tony Blair faced pressure at home last night when Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman, questioned the bombing of the fortress. "The UN is best placed to make an urgent, impartial inquiry," he said. "The governments of any of the Taliban troops who were killed as a result of the aerial bombardment may well feel that the response was disproportionate."
The US named the CIA officer who died in the revolt as Johnny "Mike" Spann, 32.
Mr Spann and a second CIA colleague are alleged to have sparked the revolt on Sunday when they attempted to question foreign Taliban fighters about their links with al-Qaida, according to Northern Alliance soldiers and a German television crew at the fortress.
The Red Cross said that its workers on the ground would try to answer the "many unanswered questions" that have arisen. A spokeswoman said: "We will be asking the alliance and the coalition forces whether the response was proportionate. How many of the prisoners were armed and how many had a real combat role?
"If 700 prisoners were heavily armed then it may be argued that the fortress became a legitimate combat target. But nobody knows the answers to these questions."
Human rights groups were less circumspect. Amnesty International said: "An urgent inquiry should look into what triggered this violent incident, including any shortcomings in the holding and processing of the prisoners, and into the proportionality of the response by United Front, US and UK forces."
Sadiq Khan, a London-based human rights lawyer, said there appeared to have been a breach of the Geneva convention, which says prisoners "must at all times be humanely treated". Mr Khan said: "There is no doubt that the prisoners' human rights were violated."
He added that international law, which says that any military response should be proportionate, may also have been broken. "There should be an urgent inquiry as to whether the International Criminal Court should be set up to assess whether war crimes have been committed.
"If this is a war, and the US says it is, then rules of engagement should apply. It does not sound like the [US bombing] was a proportionate response. Many of the Taliban were tied up."
The criticism of the bombing comes amid growing British disquiet at the tough language adopted by the US defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who said America was "not inclined to negotiate surrenders" and that he hoped al-Qaida forces would "either be killed or taken prisoner".
"Belligerence is not helpful," a British defense source said.
A 1977 protocol to the Geneva convention makes it illegal "to order that there shall be no survivors".
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001