Sat, Nov 24, 2001 - Page 1 News List

Bin Laden loyalists cling to Kunduz

DEATH THROWS As the situation grew more desperate, surrender talks collapsed as foreign bin Laden loyalists struggle to keep their Afghan comrades from giving up

REUTERS , MAZAR-I-SHARIF, AFGHANISTAN

An Afghan Dervish cries as others pray in their prayer house in Kabul, during their Friday gathering. Swaying gently at first, chanting in monotones, the roomful of Dervishes slowly builds up to a frenzy of prayer forbidden for the past five years of strict Taliban rule.

PHOTO: REUTERS

The Taliban clung to their northern Afghan bastion of Kunduz yesterday amid fears of a bloodbath.

Northern Alliance forces and US bombers pounded the besieged city of Kunduz, where an estimated 15,000 Taliban soldiers and foreign supporters of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden were fighting on after surrender talks collapsed on Thursday.

The discovery of up to 600 bodies in nearby Mazar-i-Sharif, taken by the Northern Alliance two weeks ago, and Washington's desire that the defenders of Kunduz should not escape have fuelled fears of a bloodbath if the Alliance captures Kunduz.

"We've been talking to both the Northern Alliance and the [US-led] coalition about our concerns over Kunduz," International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett said in Kabul.

"Specifically, concerns ... over the treatment of the civilian population and the proper treatment of any prisoners. Summary executions are clearly prohibited under the Geneva convention."

The fundamentalist Islamic Taliban, who controlled most of the country for five years, have been driven back by six weeks of US bombing and the advance of the Northern Alliance to Kunduz and four provinces around their power base, Kandahar.

Around Kunduz, the Northern Alliance had launched a three-pronged offensive from the east.

The BBC said American B-52 bombers had flown low over Kunduz and witnesses reported the thud of bombing from around the ancient city, which straddles supply routes into Tajikistan.

Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni said on Thursday, amid conflicting reports, that surrender negotiations had failed.

The sticking point appears to be the fate of the thousands of Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens -- widely despised by locals -- who fight alongside the Afghan Taliban and are linked to bin Laden's al-Qaeda group.

Northern Alliance commanders say the foreign fighters have executed hundreds of Afghans who wanted to surrender.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf had expressed serious concern at a meeting in Islamabad about the fate of Kunduz's defenders, telling reporters: "We all understand the potential humanitarian disaster that could be possible in Kunduz."

The real target for the US-led coalition is Kandahar, where most of the Taliban's forces are massed.

Mullah Bismillah, a former commander who recently escaped the city, said Taliban troops in Kandahar may have 500 tanks and would defend the city to their last breath.

Bismillah fled Kandahar for Pakistan in early November because of heavy US bombing, and because he did not believe in sacrificing his life for bin Laden.

On the diplomatic front, the UN is holding a conference of rival Afghan factions in Bonn, Germany from Monday to sketch out a road map to a transitional government for the ethnically fractured country after two decades of conflict.

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