Afghan forces kill dozen al-Qaida suspects

Gunbattle outside Kabul suggests foreign fighters may still be near capital

August 08, 2002|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAGHALAK, Afghanistan - In a three-hour gunbattle, Afghan soldiers cornered and killed 12 fighters believed to be Arab and Pakistani in this rural village on the edge of Kabul yesterday in what appeared to be a chance encounter with remnants of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network trying to flee the area, according to residents and soldiers.

Three Afghans also died in the clash, which marked the largest discovery of foreign al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan since Operation Anaconda flushed out hundreds of them in March. It also suggests that while U.S. forces have been concentrating their search for al-Qaida in the east, bordering Pakistan, at least some enemy forces might still be near Kabul.

The clash came as U.S. forces said they had killed four Afghans suspected of being al-Qaida members in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province, bringing to six the number of Afghans killed there in two days.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Roger King said the men had opened fire on a U.S. checkpoint, but local government officials said the men had been shot after their car failed to stop at the checkpoint. A fifth man in the car was wounded.

On Monday, U.S. troops in the area killed two men who reportedly fired on them from a hilltop.

Elsewhere, an American soldier was wounded in the chest yesterday while on patrol near the Pakistani border, said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Yesterday's events suggest that the hunt for al-Qaida in Afghanistan is far from over and that U.S. forces might not have been looking in all the right places.

Although Afghan government officials portrayed the clash in Kabul as a terrorist attack against an Afghan army post, interviews with witnesses and soldiers suggest the foreign fighters were trying to escape the area unnoticed when they were spotted, chased and killed.

The encounter began shortly after dawn in the small village of Khandar, about 6 miles from the center of Kabul, when a farmer stumbled across 12 men who appeared to be foreigners creeping through his tomato field. When he challenged them to go away, the men pulled knives and stabbed him, residents said. The farmer later died.

Villagers alerted the local police check post, and three soldiers approached the men. The soldiers also were attacked with knives and disarmed. Two soldiers died and one was injured. One of the intruders was killed.

Using the automatic rifles they had seized from the soldiers, the 11 remaining foreigners commandeered a truck and ordered its driver to take them to the next village, Baghalak, where the truck broke down. They hijacked a second vehicle, ordering its driver to take them away from Kabul.

The men spoke in Urdu and Arabic, said Torialai, the driver of the second vehicle.

"They could not speak any local language," he said. "I think three of them were Pakistanis, the rest were Arabs."

But Torialai's vehicle couldn't make it up the steep hill, so the men took off on foot.

The fighters eventually were cornered in a small hollow near a stone quarry, where they put up a fierce fight, refusing to surrender and repeatedly shouting "Allah Akbar," Arabic for "God is Great," before all were killed, said Sohrab, a quarrier who watched the fight and who, like many Afghans, has only one name.

It was impossible to verify the nationalities of the dead fighters, who had been wearing local dress, but the remnants of their possessions found near the blood-splashed stones where they fell were similar to those found on dead al-Qaida fighters in previous battles. The items included antibiotics, paracetamol tablets, bandages, bags of salt, dates and copies of the Quran.

"We shouted to them, `surrender,' in Dari and Pashtu," the local languages, said a soldier who fought in the battle. "But they refused to listen to us. All they said was `Allah Akbar.'"

Liz Sly is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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