Hindu Vivek Kendra
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Pakistanis Again Said to Evacuate Allies of Taliban

Pakistanis Again Said to Evacuate Allies of Taliban

Author: Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall
Publication: The New York Times
Date: November 24, 2001

Bangi, Afghanistan, Nov. 23 - Northern Alliance soldiers said today that Pakistani airplanes had once again flown into the encircled city of Kunduz to evacuate Pakistanis who have been fighting alongside Afghan Taliban forces trapped there.

The planes arrived as alliance leaders prepared to accept a partial surrender of Taliban forces in the last northern city they hold. But contradictory signals continued to surround the fate of the town.

Earlier in the week, alliance officials said they had been told by a Taliban leader in Kunduz that at least three Pakistani Air Force planes had landed in recent days on similar missions.

Two more planes landed Thursday night, according to the latest report. One Northern Alliance official said that a group of people had been observed today waiting for another plane to arrive at the Kunduz airport.

None of the sightings could be confirmed. American officials, who have been evasive on this subject, say they do not have information on the planes. Pakistani officials today declined comment.

The United States is indebted to Pakistan for its support of the war against terrorism but has said it wants any foreign fighters trapped in Kunduz captured or killed. Pakistan has made clear that it is deeply concerned about some of its agents and soldiers trapped in the town.

Elsewhere in Afghanistan, Taliban forces regrouped, forming strong pockets of resistance in the east of the country. Pakistani intelligence officials said Taliban forces, led by Arab fighters, were digging in at two points southeast and southwest of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

They said the fighters had also established bases at two locations in the vicinity of Jalalabad in northeastern Afghanistan, within 40 miles of the Pakistan border. Rumors are rife in Jalalabad that the accused terrorist Osama bin Laden may be among them, possibly in an area of jagged ridges called Tora Bora.

Pakistani officials said as many as 800 American Special Operations troops had established themselves at two Pakistani bases. Their chief task is to find and kill Mr. bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda, the terrorist network. Officially, these bases are supposed to be used only for search-and-rescue missions.

As alliance officials and Taliban commanders have negotiated the surrender of the Taliban garrison at Kunduz in recent days, a major stumbling block has been the fate of thousands of non-Afghan Taliban fighters, many from Pakistan or Arab countries, who are considered to be the Taliban's fiercest soldiers.

The non-Afghan fighters have said that they will fight to the death, rather than surrender. The prospect of a massacre is particularly troubling to Pakistan, which wants to prevent the deaths of Pakistani nationals.

The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, met with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in Islamabad today and said the situation in Kunduz was grave and that any fighters who surrender should not be mistreated.

"If people are ready to surrender, then the surrender should be accepted," Mr. Straw told reporters after the meeting.

General Musharraf has pressed the American-led coalition to ensure their safe surrender. But the Americans and British said they do not have troops to monitor the capitulation process.

An American official said today that the United States Central Command was considering how American and coalition forces might deal with large numbers of non-Afghan prisoners, especially those who might have valuable intelligence about the Taliban regime or Al Qaeda.

"We are not interested in having a large, long-term presence of any kind or managing P.O.W.'s," said the American official, referring to war prisoners. "But clearly, we'd be interested in interrogating the prisoners."

"It's safe to say that CentCom is involved in a lot of aspects, including what they might do if scores of prisoners come out," said the official, referring to the Central Command. "But we're looking for as limited a role as possible, with as much access to the prisoners as we can."

The treatment of prisoners could be overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The organization's president, Jakob Kellenberger, arrived in Kabul today to meet with local Red Cross workers as well as Northern Alliance officials about the prisoner issue.

United Nations officials in Kabul and Islamabad said today that under international law and United Nations human rights conventions, members of armed forces who lay down their arms are entitled to be treated humanely, without any adverse distinctions on the basis of such criteria as nationality.

At the United Nations, Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for the secretary general, said today that the United States and its coalition partners should try to "facilitate" an orderly surrender if the Taliban offers to give up.

At the same time, the Northern Alliance, amid conflicting reports from its own officials and commanders, said today that it was preparing to accept a partial surrender of Taliban troops trapped inside Kunduz.

Daoud Khan, the general in charge of Northern Alliance forces around the besieged city, said he had been assured by Taliban leaders that their troops would begin laying down their weapons Saturday morning. The surrender deal calls for the Taliban to turn over the front lines of the city first, and then gradually surrender their forces until the the interior of Kunduz is reached.

But the issue of the foreign Taliban troops remained in serious dispute within the alliance today.

Some alliance officials accused Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an alliance commander, of striking a deal with the Pakistani government to evacuate several hundred foreign fighters. Atiqullah Baryalai, the deputy defense minister, was one of a handful of Northern Alliance leaders who asserted today that General Dostum had allowed more than 50 pickup trucks full of foreigners to leave Kunduz and gather at an undisclosed location outside Mazar-i-Sharif. Mr. Baryalai said he suspected that General Dostum may have acted at the request of the Pakistani government.

"Fifty trucks left Kunduz full of foreign Taliban, and they did not come back," Mr. Baryalai said. "We believe Mr. Dostum is responsible."

General Dostum, who controlled part of the front lines west of Kunduz, could not be reached for a response today.

The surrender agreement, worked out by Taliban and Northern Alliance negotiators earlier this week, would end the encirclement of one of the largest garrisons of Taliban soldiers left in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance says the city holds as many as 16,000 Taliban soldiers, many of them refugees from battles lost across northern Afghanistan. Of those, as many as 6,000 are Taliban troops from foreign countries, Northern Alliance officials say. The Pentagon estimates the total number of Taliban troops in the city at 3,000.

The agreement is fraught with potential problems that could transform an orderly surrender into a pitched battle. While Northern Alliance leaders are offering amnesty for most Taliban soldiers, they say they want to put the foreigners on trial, with death as a potential punishment.

Faced with that choice, many of the foreign troops have vowed to make a last stand in Kunduz. Northern Alliance leaders say that they are expecting a fight with the foreigners, and probably sooner rather than later. General Khan said today that the town of Khanabad, southeast of Kunduz, holds several hundred Pakistani Taliban. The town is one of the first places that is supposed to surrender.

"We think the Taliban will surrender tomorrow, but not all of them," General Khan said. "Some of them are going to resist."

American Special Forces personnel helped draw up the surrender plan, Northern Alliance officials said.

To help persuade Taliban soldiers to give up, the Taliban's leadership in Kunduz would surrender first. That includes Mullah Fazel and Mullah Dadullah, two Taliban leaders known for their ruthlessness and zeal.

"When Mullah Fazel and Mullah Dadullah surrender, all the others will follow," said Ostad Atta Mohammed, a Northern Alliance general. "If they honestly surrender and hand over the foreigners, and cooperate with us in capturing Osama bin Laden, then we will also allow them to go home."

The two men, both ethnic Pashtuns from the area around Kandahar, are in Kunduz trying to persuade hard- line Taliban soldiers to give up, Northern Alliance officials said. According to Northern Alliance leaders, Mullah Fazel had assured them that most of the foreigners were ready to quit, and that most of the die-hard Arab fighters had already been killed in fighting. Taliban leaders have told the Northern Alliance that there are no more than 1,000 foreign fighters left in Kunduz.

Taliban leaders initially tried to negotiate an amnesty for the foreign fighters, but the Northern Alliance refused.

Refugees arriving from Kunduz today spoke of a city in turmoil, with nervous Taliban soldiers looking for a way out of Kunduz that would not involve surrender.

"The Taliban are selling their guns for 600,000 afghanis (about $10) because they want to live," said Maifi, a 24-year-old shopkeeper who walked across the front lines. "And people are giving them money so they will leave."

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