Taliban giving up in Kunduz

Afghan factions compete to control surrendered region

Dormant rivalries stir

Foreigners' fate in besieged city remains in question

War On Terrorism

November 25, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BANGI, Afghanistan - The Taliban's last stronghold in northern Afghanistan began to crumble yesterday with the defection or surrender of more than 1,000 fighters and a reported advance of Northern Alliance forces from the west.

Gen. Daoud Khan said he hoped to accept the surrender of all Afghan Taliban fighters in Kunduz province by today.

But Khan, who is east of the province in the city of Taloqan, faces a challenge from a rival general, Rashid Dostum, based to the west in Mazar-e Sharif. Dostum is said to be on the outskirts of Kunduz city and may well be in a position to seize it before Khan can get there.

Khan's aides complained yesterday that Dostum was providing Russian-built Kamaz trucks to provide safe passage for Afghan Taliban fighters to other regions of the country - principally, the south.

The two generals could wind up in a bidding war for the surrender of the Taliban in the province.

Still unresolved is the future of the thousands of foreign Taliban fighters in Kunduz. It has been widely believed that they would rather fight to the death than give in to the Northern Alliance and face the likelihood of a massacre. But one report said some foreigners had been among a group of 600 who surrendered to Dostum yesterday. Khan said he would like to see all foreign fighters arrested and put on trial in Islamic courts.

Khan also said, as he has before, that Pakistani planes had entered Kunduz and evacuated some fighters. Pentagon officials denied that this had happened.

Late yesterday morning, Mullah Abdullah, 24, a Taliban commander, crossed the lines to meet Khan and shake hands on the capitulation of his detachment, which he said he thought numbered about 1,000.

Abdullah, wearing a gleaming white turban, was greeted warmly by Khan and his aides.

The mullah, whose men have been based near the town of Khanabad, said he had decided to surrender to Khan rather than Dostum because he is from Taloqan and because he believes Dostum is too closely identified with the Communist government that ruled Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, has been severely criticized by Human Rights Watch and other organizations for his part in several massacres during the country's agonized recent history. Khan has been portraying himself as a more palatable alternative to Dostum, and that could weigh in his favor as Taliban fighters in Kunduz are forced to choose which way to surrender.

But Abdullah said he was aware of several detachments in the city of Kunduz that had surrendered to Dostum. He said that there are more than 1,000 foreigners around Khanabad, and, when asked whether they would surrender, he replied, "I don't think so."

Abdullah said U.S. bombardments of positions around Khanabad had killed about 20 of his men, fewer than the number of civilians who refugees said had been killed in one attack last week.

Later in the afternoon, Abdullah's men streamed across the line in about 40 vehicles. Some said they were defecting rather than surrendering and were ready to turn their weapons against the foreigners who had been their allies when the day began.

At least some of those who surrendered in Kunduz were hard-line foreign Taliban. Some turned out to be suicide bombers who had rigged their bodies with explosives and blew themselves up in Northern Alliance custody.

"They killed about five or six Northern Alliance commanders," one alliance commander, Haji Mohammed Mukhaqiq, said by satellite telephone from Mazar-e Sharif.

When Taliban authority across northern Afghanistan began to collapse two weeks ago, thousands of fighters retreated to Kunduz, where Northern Alliance forces encircled them. Since then, there has been sporadic skirmishing and intense bargaining over the future of the Taliban fighters. The Northern Alliance's aim has been to separate the Afghan Taliban from the foreigners - mostly Arabs, Pakistanis and Uzbeks.

But a secondary struggle has been going on between Dostum and those Northern Alliance forces that were based in the northeastern province of Badakhshan and commanded by Khan. In the mid-1990s, Dostum shelled Kabul, which was then ruled by a government that was the direct predecessor of the Northern Alliance.

When the two sides joined to fight the Taliban, it was the wariest of coalitions.

The question is whether they will come to blows over Kunduz - which would mean a major headache for the United States and a potential disaster for Afghanistan - or find a way to coexist.

Khan's men talked yesterday of Dostum's "betrayal" in moving on Kunduz before a final surrender agreement had been worked out, and were suspicious of the reported offer of trucks to move the Taliban out of the province.

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