Taliban recruits said to control city of Kunduz

Foreign-born militants arrest civilians, vow not to give up, refugees say

War On Terrorism


BANGI, Afghanistan - Refugees fleeing the besieged Taliban stronghold of Kunduz said yesterday that large groups of Arabs and Pakistanis fighting alongside the Taliban had taken control of the city, arresting hundreds of civilians and, in speeches, vowing a fight to the death.

The refugees, walking across the front lines here, said these foreign soldiers had arrived in Kunduz by the thousands in recent days after the Taliban were defeated in cities across northern Afghanistan. They said the men had taken over all of the important buildings and military installations in and around the city, including the airport. The foreign fighters apparently so distrust local Taliban soldiers that they are barring their entrance to many areas across the city, the refugees said.

The refugees, ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, painted a horrific scene inside Kunduz, which has been surrounded by Northern Alliance troops since Monday. The refugees said the foreign fighters, whom they numbered in the thousands, were breaking open shops and restaurants in search of food, and were beating and arresting anyone suspected of collaborating with the Northern Alliance. They said the fighters had strung up the bodies of Northern Alliance soldiers last week in the city's main bazaar.

The refugees said they could distinguish the foreigners from the other Taliban troops because of the languages they spoke, which they said included Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Chinese as well as dialects spoken in Indonesia. The refugees said the non-Afghan fighters had been streaming into the city aboard Toyota Hi-Lux trucks, the signature vehicle of the Taliban, since the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif fell to the Northern Alliance. The foreign soldiers came from as far away as Sheberghan and Meymaneh, 250 miles to the west, they said.

"All the trucks are full of foreigners, and every truck has a translator," said Ibrahim Hoxar, a 50-year-old Tajik farmer who walked across the front lines yesterday. "The situation is terrible. All the people of Kunduz are trying to leave. The foreigners say they will fight to the death."

The refugees' accounts appear to confirm the statements of Northern Alliance commanders, who say Kunduz has become the gathering point for thousands of Taliban troops and foreign fighters whose escape routes have been sealed off by the Northern Alliance.

Alliance commanders say they are confident that they can persuade local Taliban leaders to switch sides, but they are preparing for a bloody fight with the foreign soldiers and those from southern Afghanistan.

The commanders say they will not give the foreigners an opportunity to switch sides, and some alliance soldiers have said they intend to kill them regardless of whether they surrender. Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said the battle for Kunduz could be particularly bloody.

As broken Taliban units have scattered across much of Afghanistan, Kunduz appears to hold one of the largest remaining concentrations of Taliban soldiers. The Northern Alliance commanders, relying on what they say are their agents inside the city, estimate the number of troops at about 20,000, with as many as a third of those from foreign countries. The Pentagon puts the number of troops there closer to 3,000.

The foreign soldiers fighting with the Taliban have long been considered, by Afghans and outside observers, as among the toughest troops the Taliban have. Foreign soldiers have been used to bolster the Taliban front lines in strategic cities, as well as to provide security for leaders like Mullah Mohammed Omar. Many of the foreign Taliban fighters are religious students answering Mullah Omar's call for a holy war against infidels inside and outside Afghanistan.

The fierce reputation of foreign Taliban troops appears to have given Northern Alliance commanders pause. The commanders have been saying for days that they are ready to attack the city, but they appear to be making few preparations to do so.

As U.S. jets bomb targets in and around the city, Northern Alliance commanders have focused on persuading the local leaders of Taliban units, mainly Tajik and Uzbek men, to defect once the fighting starts.

Although it worked in other places in Afghanistan, that strategy appears to be having uncertain results here. When the Northern Alliance attempted to march into the city early last week, having secured what they thought was the surrender of the Taliban, they were met with a volley of rockets and retreated in panic.

Abdullah, a 45-year-old Uzbek farmer who walked out of Kunduz yesterday, said Taliban soldiers, led by the foreign troops, have beaten, arrested and killed many residents of Kunduz in recent days. Several refugees said that the Taliban had arrested "hundreds" of people. Abdullah said people were so fearful of the rampaging Taliban soldiers that many had closed their shops, prompting some Taliban soldiers to break into them for food.

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