Dramatic corroboration of the massacre of Afghan prisoners by the US-backed Northern Alliance at the start of the war in 2001 was last night provided by American pathologists commissioned to investigate the claims by the UN.
A vivid account of the slaughter was provided to The Observer last week by three Britons who were released from the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba more than two years after they were first seized in Afghanistan. They told how they narrowly escaped the massacre before being handed over to American forces and flown to Guantanamo Bay.
Forensic anthropologist William Haglund, who earlier led inquiries into mass graves in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone, told The Observer how he dug into an area of recently disturbed desert soil outside the town of Shebargan, and exhumed 15 bodies, a tiny sample, he said, of what may be a very large total.
Thanks to the cold and arid climate, they were well enough preserved to carry out autopsies. Haglund's conclusion 'that they died from suffocation' exactly corroborates the stories told by the Guantanamo detainees in last week's Observer .
'They are the first survivors to describe what we already believed happened to the victims we discovered,' Haglund said yesterday. 'The time has come for a full investigation, under the protection of the international community.'
Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed, from Tipton in the West Midlands, told in their interviews how weeks before they were handed over to the Americans, they were captured by Northern Alliance forces led by General Abdurrashid Dostum in November 2001, as they tried to flee war-torn Afghanistan.
At Shebargan, they were herded into two of several truck containers. Then, Iqbal said, the doors were sealed. He and the others lost consciousness, and when he came to he was 'lying on top of dead bodies, breathing the stench of their blood and urine'.
'We lived because someone made holes with a machine gun, though they were shooting low, and still more died from the bullets. When we got out, about 20 in each container were still alive.'
Haglund visited the mass grave at Shebargan twice in 2002, in the wake of the coalition's war against the Taliban. On the first occasion, he was part of a team from the US-based Physicians for Human Rights, which identified dozens of mass graves in northern Afghanistan, many containing the remains of prisoners killed by the proxy warlord forces backed by Britain and America.
The team also inspected the Northern Alliance prison at Shebargan in January, 2002, while the 'Tipton Three' were still there. Their findings, said John Heffernan, another team member, also corroborate the Tipton men's story. 'There were nearly 3,000 of them being held in squalid conditions under the control of Dostum, whose palatial headquarters were across the street,' Heffernan said.
Iqbal and Rasul told how they had been marched through the desert towards Shebargan past huge ditches already filled with bodies. Heffernan said: 'After taking into account the thousands crowded into the dilapidated prison, the whereabouts of many taken captive remained unknown. We began to suspect some might have met their fate on the way there. After we left the prison and traveled down the road a few miles into the desert, we smelled the unmistakable odor of decaying flesh and soon found bulldozer tracks and skeletal remains.' Haglund came back under United Nations auspices a few months later.
By chance, on the day he arrived at Shebargan, Dostum had gone into the mountains, he said, leaving behind a military escort which allowed him to open the grave. 'I uncovered one small corner, exposing 15 remains which were quite complete, and did autopsies on three. There were no signs of trauma and these were all young men. This is consistent with death by asphyxiation.
'I told Dostum's security chief that they had died from suffocation, and there was this big silence hanging over the desert.'
The details about elements of the Tipton Three's story assumed a new importance last week, after the Sun published claims by a US Embassy spokesman, Lee McClenny, that the three had trained at an al-Qaeda camp in 2000. They told The Observer last week that they had all confessed to this accusation only after months of solitary confinement and 200 separate interrogation sessions, only to have it finally disproved by MI5, which brought documents showing they had been in Britain at the time.
After making his claims in the Sun, McClenny refused to answer further questions from journalists, while Lt Col Leon Sumpter, the US spokesman at Guantanamo Bay, said any allegations concerning detainees were highly classified, even after their release: 'I don't know how the Embassy got this,' he said. 'It didn't come from us, and we knew nothing about it.' McClenny's letter was widely criticized as an attempt to nullify the Tipton men's stories of abuse at American hands.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004