Afghanistan city collapses into state of `lawlessness'

Once loyal Arabs fight Taliban

militias split

War On Terrorism

The World

October 19, 2001|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON - After 12 days of heavy bombardment, the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar has collapsed into a state of "pre-Taliban lawlessness," with Arab fighters once loyal to the ruling Taliban regime taking over homes, looting stores, and battling Taliban police in street gunbattles, a senior relief organization official said yesterday.

Nearly 1,000 Arab fighters, soldiers linked to suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, have been forced out of their four barracks by the U.S.-led strikes and have holed up in civilian homes around Kandahar. Meanwhile, separate rogue militias have split from the Taliban regime and have divided the city into four or five parts, the aid official said.

"It's about life and death now," the official said from Pakistan, where he has kept daily telephone contact with aid workers in Kandahar. "They are waiting for the ground troops. It may be the only way to get [the Arab fighters] out."

The situation in the city of 350,000 people has become so chaotic that charity organizations have kept their aid convoys away from Kandahar, fearing supplies and food would be stolen by the armed fighters, the official said.

Kandahar has been a prime target because it is the Taliban's spiritual center - the movement's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, lives there - and a base of operations for bin Laden and his network.

A Pentagon official said yesterday the United States has picked up intelligence that the air strikes had led to some internal battles among the Taliban as well as defections.

"You figure it is going to happen eventually, that it will be every person for themselves," the official said. "There will be folks hanging on to whatever turf they grab."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said, "There's no question but that the al-Qaida and the Taliban are using mosques, they're using heavily populated areas for their command and control and for their gathering places, purposely, because they know that we are a country that tries to avoid high-collateral-damage targets."

The Arab soldiers have been training and fighting alongside Taliban troops, rotating in two-month shifts from Kandahar to different war fronts in northern Afghanistan. Some of those fighters might be linked to Osama bin Laden's network.

U.S. defense officials last week estimated 4,000 Arab fighters who are now in Afghanistan helping the Taliban, including the 500 elite soldiers in the Taliban's 55th Brigade.

The turmoil has triggered violent episodes in the city.

The most alarming incident took place several days ago when a group of Arab fighters walked into an Islamic charity organization in the city, said the aid official, who called the Arab fighters "foreign guests" of the Taliban.

"They have shown by action, and by words, they don't care about the Taliban's supreme leader," the official said. "When they went to the Islamic aid agency office, they were shown a letter from the Taliban leadership assuring the protection of the aid agency.

"The foreign guests said they didn't care about that, they don't care about supreme leaders, it meant nothing to them. The aid agency called Taliban police, and a street fight started." The official said it was one of several gunbattles between the two groups.

After much shooting around the aid organization, the official said, the Taliban police retreated, believing it could not dislodge the Arab fighters. The Islamic aid workers sought refuge at one of the United Nations walled compounds in the city.

The official said that Taliban leaders and the Arab fighters separately were preparing the city residents for war in Kandahar.

"These foreign guests see their days are numbered. They don't care about things anymore. They have even held speeches in Kandahar, in mosques, telling people not to go with their children to Pakistan or other countries that they are calling infidels. They are really preparing for their final battle, and they are prepared to see the end of their days in Kandahar," the official said.

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