Rebel leader reported killed

Taliban announce capture, execution of Abdul Haq

Sought to rally opposition

War On Terrorism

The World

October 27, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Showing further signs of resilience, the Taliban brushed aside another threat to their power yesterday, announcing that they had captured and killed opposition leader Abdul Haq, a former guerrilla fighter who had recently boasted that the Taliban were on the brink of collapse.

Haq, 43, had secretly crossed into Afghanistan from Pakistan on Sunday with his nephew and about six others, according to two of his brothers. His confederates say he had hoped to rally opposition in his tribal homeland in the Logar and Nagarhar provinces, just south of Kabul.

Haq's older brother, Haji Din Mohammad, a former minister of national security in Afghanistan, characterized Haq's trip as a peace mission. Backing that account was a spokesman for Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who had been working with Haq on efforts to form a possible post-Taliban government.

"He was in close contact with all Afghan leaders and people who were abroad," Din Mohammad said, "because he was working very hard to find a peaceful solution. ... He was not armed. He was not prepared for battle."

Taliban officials offered a different version, saying Haq was captured early yesterday after a firefight in which four of their soldiers and three civilians were wounded. The regime's news agency, Bakhtar, said Haq was executed by religious decree because he was spying for the United States and Great Britain.

According to Bakhtar, Haq was found with two satellite telephones, U.S. dollars and documents. The news agency didn't describe the documents.

"At the same time Abdul Haq was captured, one jet and two helicopters came to try to help him, but they failed," the agency said.

Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, asked in Washington about the Taliban report that the United States tried to rescue Haq, said, "I don't have any information that any rescue attempt was made."

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted Taliban officials as saying they had spent two days tracking Haq. Before dawn, Taliban fighters surrounded and arrested Haq and men with him at the town of Azra, 20 miles south of Kabul, before dawn, the news agency said. The capture came on a night of heavy bombardment by U.S. warplanes. The news agency said the Taliban claimed that Haq had used a satellite telephone to call in attacks by U.S. aircraft in an attempt to stave off capture and that he was seized as he tried to escape on horseback.

Haq's longtime friend Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani who wrote the recent book Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, offered another explanation in a telephone interview. Rashid said Haq, who'd once fought against invading Soviet Union troops, "was basically trying to talk to his old grid of anti-Soviet chiefs and tribal leaders, to try and set up an anti-Taliban entity, a base in the south. The U.S. has a fighting force in the north [the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance]. This would have been one in the south."

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that Haq was taken on his own turf, the territory of his Ahmad Zai tribe, a clan of ethnic Pashtuns with about 25,000 houses.

"That was his old stomping ground," Rashid said. "Clearly, he was betrayed by someone, possibly in Peshawar."

Haq had operated during the past several weeks from his home in a Peshawar suburb dominated by Afghan refugees. He had left the turmoil of Afghanistan's civil wars in the early 1990s to become a wealthy businessman, spending much of his time in the United Arab Emirates, though he kept his home here.

Shortly after showing up in Peshawar this month, he made it clear that he was plotting a triumphant return to Afghanistan and offered a rough outline of his eventual infiltration, only with a far different ending in mind.

"We can do all this without fighting," he told The New York Times. "The Taliban are ready to collapse. Some have been contacting us. They cross the mountains in the darkness to speak with me. They'll make an alliance with us and the former mujahedeen and the tribal leaders. We'll roll through Jalalabad and on to Kabul."

Hope of Western diplomats

As a Pashtun, a member of Afghanistan's most populous ethnic group, Haq was seen by the Western diplomatic corps as perhaps the best hope for organizing a more palatable alternative to the Northern Alliance, dominated by smaller ethnic groups, such as Tajiks and Uzbeks.

"It's extremely disappointing to have this happen," said a Western diplomat in the region. "He's an extremely sharp guy. Nobody [in southern Afghanistan] is going to jump ship if there's nothing to jump into."

The scene last night at Haq's home was somber. A stream of reporters trooped through the front door, where younger brother Daud Arsala fielded questions. "He was always friendly with all the people of Afghanistan - the Northern Alliance, the Taliban and the other political parties," Arsala said. "He never said a bad word against anyone. He was interested in peace."

Familiar with tragedy

As a muezzin at a nearby mosque chanted the evening call to prayer, several friends bowed on a narrow carpet on the front lawn, while Haq's family continued trying in vain to telephone the Taliban embassy in Islamabad, to confirm word of his death.

The home had been a scene of tragedy before. While Haq was away on a business trip, two masked men broke in and killed his wife, his 11-year-old son and a bodyguard.

Haq is the second opposition leader to be killed in the past 50 days. A suicide bombing Sept. 9 killed Ahmed Shah Massood, charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance, dispiriting his followers. But this time, Rashid said, the killing might backfire, mostly because Haq was a Pashtun. "He was a very popular man all across the Pashtun belt," Rashid said, "and I think this will reduce the Taliban's power. It's going to be a very bloody mess."

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