Afghan standoff ends with fight to the death

6 al-Qaida fighters held out for 7 weeks, vowed not to give up

January 29, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - After hours of fighting yesterday, Afghan troops directed by U.S. Special Forces killed six al-Qaida fighters who had been barricaded inside a hospital for seven weeks and pledged not to surrender.

The assault against the six men armed with pistols, hand grenades and at least one AK-47 assault rifle ended a long standoff that had caused concern among hospital staff and Special Forces based at a nearby airstrip.

U.S. and Afghan troops were surrounding the city's Mir Wais Hospital about 3:40 a.m. when forces of Gul Agha Sharzai, governor of Kandahar province, demanded that the fighters give themselves up and blew open a door. Witnesses said the fighters replied with a burst of gunfire.

Black smoke poured from the second-floor ward where the fighters had been holed up since the Taliban surrendered their spiritual capital in early December.

Before the raid, U.S. and Afghan troops blocked streets around the hospital and about 100 patients were evacuated.

The al-Qaida fighters beat back the first assault, with four attackers wounded by grenades and another shot, said U.S. soldiers and Khalid Pashtun, an aide to the Afghan governor. The most seriously wounded Afghan soldier was taken to Kandahar Air Base to be treated by U.S. Army doctors.

More than a dozen loud explosions and long bursts of gunfire echoed through the neighborhood during the morning. An Afghan soldier could be seen walking along a second-floor ledge and climbing into a window of the hospital's prison ward, where the al-Qaida fighters were holed up.

American soldiers with automatic weapons could be seen creeping along outside and crawling across the hospital courtyard.

The final 45-minute assault began shortly before 1 p.m. with U.S. troops yelling, "Stand clear!" as they and Afghan soldiers threw stun grenades through windows into the hospital ward.

Two al-Qaida fighters were killed as they ran to a door, and a third was shot while under a bed, Afghan soldiers said. Three were shot and killed in other rooms, the soldiers said.

"These Afghan fighters were courageous fighters," said Maj. Chris Miller, a member of the Army's 5th Special Forces Group who helped train the Afghans for the assault over the past week. "It was a huge gunbattle. The six al-Qaida Arabs fought to the death."

Asked about the Americans' role in the assault, Miller said: "We were strictly advising and assisting. We had no role in the operation."

Like the other Special Forces troops, Miller had a beard and an Army uniform with no markings. Others wore heavy sweaters and baseball caps.

In Washington, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Afghan soldiers led the final assault.

"They were the front force that attacked the wing and met headlong with those al-Qaida members," he said. "We assisted them.

"In terms of ... who might have killed whom, that's not being tracked," he said.

Stufflebeem said there were no casualties among U.S. troops. He said several Afghans were wounded, one seriously.

After the battle, the ward was littered with bodies under a bed and lying about on the floor. Mattresses were soaked in blood.

"We were trying to solve it through negotiation," Pashtun said. "They were not listening. We had no other choice."

Pashtun said he was uncertain of the al-Qaida fighters' nationalities. Bodies of at least two were seen in the back of a Special Forces pickup truck as it pulled away from the hospital through crowds of onlookers.

More than 200 Kandahar residents watched the battle from a vacant lot across from the hospital. But most residents paid little attention, eating lunch in nearby restaurants, going about their shopping or passing through on bicycles, in cars and on horse carts.

The al-Qaida members were the last of about 10 ill or wounded fighters who had barricaded themselves in the hospital. On Jan. 8, one tried to escape and blew himself up with a grenade when Afghan guards surrounded him.

Two others were captured in December when soldiers used the only doctor the al-Qaida fighters trusted to trick them. The pair were handed over to U.S. forces.

An Afghan soldier said Green Berets had asked that the al-Qaida fighters be taken alive, if possible, so they could be interrogated.

Nearly 250 al-Qaida and Taliban detainees are being questioned at Kandahar Air Base by U.S. forces and FBI agents.

Wire services contributed to this article.

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