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Sat, Nov 24, 2001 - Page 5 News List

Straw warns of bloody reprisals

REVENGE The British foreign secretary says there might be a `humanitarian disaster' around the Afghan town of Kunduz where Taliban forces are making a last stand


British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said yesterday there was potential for a "humanitarian disaster" around the besieged northern Afghan town of Kunduz where Taliban forces are making a last stand.

Straw said that concerns about bloody reprisals against the Taliban in the embattled enclave had been raised during talks here with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar.

He said Taliban troops who were willing to surrender should be accepted by the opposing Northern Alliance forces, but they could not be allowed to go free.

"We discussed what is a very difficult and potentially very serious situation ... We all understand the potential humanitarian disaster that could be possible in Kunduz," he told a joint press conference with Sattar.

Hundreds of Taliban troops have surrendered in the past 24 hours as alliance forces and US warplanes pound their positions with air strikes, artillery and rocket fire.

But thousands more Afghan Taliban and foreign militants believed to be linked to Osama bin Laden's alleged terrorist network are entrenched in the area, preferring to fight to the last.

Concerns about reprisal killings if the alliance forces crack the Taliban's defenses have grown since the UN reported at least 100 young Taliban recruits were killed after the fall of the nearby city of Mazar-i-Sharif earlier this month.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday it had found 600 bodies in Mazar-i-Sharif in the wake of the battle, but could not say whether the victims had been executed or were killed in combat.

Straw said the situation in Kunduz was "sketchy" and the British government had "no troops on the ground" in the area to verify conflicting reports about Taliban defections.

"It's an area where information is limited but our position is very straightforward," he said.

"If people are ready to surrender, they are serious in their intentions, they have given up their arms and it is possible to accept their surrender, then their surrender should be accepted," he said.

"We also understand that if people have been fighting for the Taliban, as is the case in any other similar conflict, then they stand to be detained if they do surrender. They can't expect to go free."

Except for Kunduz, the Taliban have been driven from the north and the capital Kabul since US-led air strikes began on Oct. 7 in retaliation for the Islamic militia's refusal to hand over terror suspect bin Laden.

With the Taliban confined mainly to the southern desert provinces, the focus of the international campaign in Afghanistan has shifted to tracking down bin Laden and creating a new government to end years of ethnic strife.

Straw said the ethnic minority groups in the Northern Alliance, which now controls Kabul, were committed to participating in an inter-Afghan meeting in Germany next week to discuss a broad-based provisional administration.

"We hope, given what they have already said, and we expect the Northern Alliance to continue to show a high degree of responsibility for securing a peaceful future in Afghanistan," he said, a day after meeting alliance foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah in Iran.

"That can only come about if there is give and take, if there is an acceptance that no one party, no one ethnic group, should have control of any government."

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