Many Taliban are defecting from Kunduz

Northern Alliance artillery pounds city to flush out enemy

Surrender reports mixed

Negotiations focus on foreign fighters, avoiding massacres

War On Terrorism

The World

November 23, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

CHOGHA, Afghanistan - With U.S. warplanes circling overhead, Northern Alliance forces shelled Taliban positions and exchanged machine-gun fire yesterday in a determined effort to flush the fundamentalist fighters from their northern Afghanistan enclave of Kunduz.

Hundreds of Taliban troops who had been cornered in or around the besieged city defected shortly after the shelling began. Northern Alliance commanders, meanwhile, issued conflicting reports about the status of surrender negotiations.

The mixed messages from commanders and tensions among alliance troops on the battlefield illustrated ever-widening divisions within the anti-Taliban forces, which consist of loosely allied but competing groups.

Northern Alliance leaders had promised for days that their fighters would attack Kunduz if thousands of Taliban trapped inside did not surrender. Defections have shrunk the Taliban ranks, and negotiations since last weekend were ostensibly designed to give the remaining Afghan Taliban fighters a chance to lay down their weapons.

But Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni said in an interview yesterday that talks for a peaceful end to the siege had failed. "We've been forced to choose a military solution," he said in Kabul. He predicted the city would fall today.

Victory by the Northern Alliance in Kunduz would leave the Taliban essentially isolated in their spiritual capital of Kandahar to the south. It is there that Taliban leaders, their numbers bolstered by international Muslim fighters, have vowed to make their last stand.

The negotiations for a Kunduz surrender have centered on how to prevent a massacre of the foreign militants, many of whom are Pakistanis but who also include Arab Muslims and Muslim separatists from the Russian region of Chechnya and Uighur Muslims from western China.

U.S. officials say many of the fighters are aligned with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network and have insisted that they be detained and disarmed. Still, the U.S. military has made it clear it does not want a role securing their safety if they do surrender.

The assault on Kunduz came after one Northern Alliance commander, Gen. Rashid Dostum, announced that he had struck surrender terms with Taliban leaders. But another alliance commander, Gen. Mohammed Daoud, said he would rush his forces to Kunduz to block the agreement.

Indications of the coming battle began about 12:30 p.m., when Taj Mohammed, commander of several hundred Northern Alliance troops massed at the abandoned village of Chogha, about 20 miles east of Kunduz, arrived in a jeep. He shouted to his men, "Come on, we're moving forward. Keep your radios on."

Speaking to reporters a few minutes later, Mohammed said Afghan Taliban leaders within Kunduz had made a deal with Dostum and were leaving the enclave for Mazar-e Sharif and then for the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the south. But the deal apparently offered nothing for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of foreign militants who have been fighting alongside Afghan Taliban troops. Those fighters fear they will be massacred if they turn themselves in to the Northern Alliance.

Hundreds of Northern Alliance troops armed with Soviet-made AK-47 rifles, light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades poured into Chogha. Many of them were recent Taliban defectors, easily identifiable by their trademark turbans. Dozens of the troops were boys barely in their teens.

The attack began about 2 p.m. when Northern Alliance tanks and artillery shelled Taliban positions in the village of Bureeda, about a mile away. The shelling was light, but steady. Hundreds of Northern Alliance soldiers milled about a cluster of mud huts, waiting for action. Cars and trucks sped back and forth, their horns blaring.

As Northern Alliance artillery pounded Taliban positions on a distant ridge, a mass defection from the Taliban lines began. Three Nissan pickups and a 5-ton military truck, full of Taliban fighters, moved toward the Northern Alliance column.

Ibrahim, a 24-year-old Taliban fighter, sat behind the wheel of a 5-ton truck with a twin-barreled 20 mm anti-aircraft gun mounted in its bed. Ibrahim said he and 20 other fighters saw their chance to break away from the Taliban lines after the shelling started. They took it and surrendered to the Northern Alliance, which is formally known as the United National and Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan or the United Front.

"I wasn't safe with the Taliban," Ibrahim said. "So, I decided to surrender here to the United Front. I am in a safe place now."

Northern Alliance Interior Minister Qanooni said 15,000 Taliban troops, including up to 10,000 of the foreign combatants, were based in Kunduz.

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