Uncertain fate for foreign Taliban troops

Alliance commanders argue over what to do with captured fighters

War On Terrorism

November 28, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KHULM, Afghanistan - Like a lost caravan, the trucks rumbled across the steppe bearing their wretched cargo: 800 Taliban prisoners bound for an uncertain fate.

The prisoners, crawling and writhing on one another, were the byproduct of the Northern Alliance's most recent victory in the suddenly fast-moving war.

Until Monday, the Taliban soldiers had been hunkered down in the northern city of Kunduz, and after the Northern Alliance laid siege to it for the past two weeks, the Taliban troops faced the choice of surrendering or fighting to the death.

First they retreated, then they gave up.

It was a defeated army, all rags and filth and lowered heads. Flies swarmed around men with matted hair, and fights broke out in the tangle of bodies for space. The air around the trucks reeked so powerfully that the guards wrapped their faces with scarves before they approached.

Some of the prisoners, those still spirited, were bound, and some were bound to each other, lest they jump from the trucks. The rest were suspended in their misery by the threat of Kalashnikovs being held by the guards watching over them.

"Terrorists and invaders, come to ruin our country," huffed Agha Muhammad, the chief alliance guard, walking down the line of trucks with a walkie-talkie and a long stick. "I wonder what they are thinking now."

The prisoners had come to this spot, a way station in the parched vastness of northern Afghanistan, to wait for some word on their final destination. They had run out of Kunduz toward the west as the Northern Alliance rolled in from the east, and it was their misfortune that another anti-Taliban warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was waiting for them as they came out.

As these Taliban were foreigners, mostly illiterate young men from Pakistan, they were not being allowed to return to their homes - unlike the Taliban from Afghanistan. The future of the foreign prisoners is murky, with Northern Alliance commanders bickering over whether they should be executed or turned over to the United Nations.

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