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Fight With Prisoners Rages at Northern Afghan Fort

Fight With Prisoners Rages at Northern Afghan Fort

Author: Carlotta Gall
Publication: The New York Times
Date: November 27, 2001

Qala Jangi, Afghanistan, Nov. 26 - A battle raged here today between Taliban prisoners and the American-backed troops of the Northern Alliance, and the Bush administration revealed that five Americans had been wounded.

The sounds of fighting echoed around the 19th-century Qala Jangi fortress, a great hulking mass of brown crenelated walls, standing alone in the flat fertile fields several miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif.

It was here, it seems, that the United States suffered its first battlefield casualties in Afghanistan.

On one side of the fort lies a village of mud-walled houses. On the other is a military airport where American and British Special Operations forces who helped direct today's fighting are based and American helicopters land at night.

This afternoon, four mortars landed in the fields just beyond the walls of the fort, a sign that some of the Taliban prisoners inside, who began their armed revolt on Sunday, were alive and still fighting. Many of the prisoners are foreign recruits to the Taliban cause.

More than 36 hours after they seized guns from their guards and fired on the soldiers in the compound, the Taliban prisoners continued their resistance. Gunfire crackled in the air, followed by a burst from a machine gun and explosions from rocket-propelled grenades. Artillery sounded for several hours late in the evening, and American planes could be heard in the skies.

A small number of American Special Forces and British Special Air Service troops were battling the Taliban inside the fort this afternoon, alongside Northern Alliance soldiers, local commanders said.

The Pentagon said today that the five Americans were seriously injured after they called in a bombing mission and the bomb exploded too close to them. Neither the Pentagon nor the Central Intelligence Agency confirmed today reports that a C.I.A. officer had been killed.

The ethnic Uzbek alliance soldiers in charge of the fort proved ineffective in the face of the surprise attack, and the American and British Special Operations forces appear to have taken over control of the operation, the local commanders said.

The revolt by Taliban fighters, who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance just two days before, has highlighted the tenuous control the anti-Taliban alliance maintains over the situation here and its inability to ensure security for its own troops.

The revolt also raised concerns that the Northern Alliance, America's proxy force in northern Afghanistan, may not be able to control the surrendering Taliban troops leaving Kunduz, which had been their last major outpost in the north, ahead of advancing alliance troops today.

Alliance troops continued their assault tonight on the Taliban carrying out the revolt, who are holed up in the basement of a building in the southern part of the fort compound.

"There are three buildings - we now hold two buildings and they hold one," said Muhammad Allem, an Uzbek commander of a unit on the main road, just 500 yards from the fort. "We have killed almost all of them - there are still 30 to 40 alive," he said of the prisoners. His account could not be independently verified.

There were no accurate details of casualties from the fighting in the fort, but several hundred people may have been killed and wounded in the gun battles and American airstrikes on the fort to quell the revolt, local Afghan commanders here said. About 400 Taliban fighters, most of them Pakistani, were detained in the fort at the time, and Northern Alliance commanders said today that a majority of them had been killed.

About 40 to 50 Northern Alliance soldiers were killed or wounded in the fighting, in particular in the airstrikes, said a Northern Alliance commander, Shamsuddin, whose troops, ethnic Hazaras, were in positions outside the entrance to the fort.

Refferring to the American airstrikes, Commander Allem, the Uzbek fighter, said, "That was a big mistake because they killed our people." The Red Cross took three Northern Alliance soldiers to a hospital and remained on standby to collect more, officials said.

With fighting still going on, it has been impossible to remove the bodies from the compound, Red Cross officials said. Most of the Taliban prisoners are foreign fighters, a majority of them Pakistani, but they are reported to include Uzbeks, Arabs and Chechens. Among those believed to be leading the fighting from inside the prison is Tahir Uldosh, the deputy leader of the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has been linked to the Al Qaeda network, Afghan commanders said today.

The prisoners' aim is far from clear, but their action to seize the guards' guns and raid the fort's weapons store, stocked with rocket launchers, mortars and assault rifles, appeared to have been well- thought out and coordinated.

At one point a group of Taliban tried to break out of the fort and succeeded in pushing the Northern Alliance troops back some way. Until Nov. 9, when the alliance took control of Mazar-i-Sharif, Taliban troops had used the fort as a military base, so they would have known their way easily around the compound, which covers as much as a square mile.

The prisoners were being searched on Sunday morning when three or four of them attacked their guards, the alliance commanders said. About 250 prisoners had been checked, and their arms were tied, said foreign journalists who had been allowed to witness the scene.

By midmorning, some prisoners were being interviewed by the chief of intelligence for the area from the Northern Alliance, Said Kamal, together with two C.I.A. operatives, alliance officials said.

The presence of the Americans may have caused anger or desperation among some of the foreign Taliban, who may be part of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network or who fear extradition to their home countries.

One group of Northern Alliance fighters who were inside the compound at the time said the sight of the C.I.A. officials led to the revolt.

A prisoner hurled a rock at the head of one of the guards, knocking him down, and seized his rifle, alliance officials said. Within minutes prisoners had overpowered and killed half a dozen guards, and a heavy gun battle spread across the compound. The prisoners quickly made their way to the arsenal, which lies near the prison cells, and armed themselves with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns.

The Uzbek troops in the fort rapidly lost control of the situation, said Simon Brooks, the chief of mission of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Mazar-i-Sharif. He had been attending a meeting in the fort at the time with the senior Uzbek commander for the Northern Alliance, trying to gain access to the prisoners for the Red Cross and the Islamic equivalent, the Red Crescent.

Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has used the fort as his headquarters since the Northern Alliance took control of the city, was a five-hour drive away with thousands of his best troops, trying to coordinate the Taliban surrender from Kunduz.

With the fighting growing heavier, the Red Cross officials said, they looked for a way out of the fort. "We had grave concerns that the prisoners had been able to overcome their keepers and could overtake the headquarters building," Mr. Brooks said.

Mr. Brooks said he had no doubt that the prisoners started the fighting and that the authorities had not sought to attack the prisoners. The Red Cross has been allowed prompt access to other prisoners of war being held in Mazar-i-Sharif, he said.

The Red Cross officials and foreign journalists trapped by the fighting escaped by jumping and sliding down the high sloping walls of the fortress and running across the fields to the main road.

Later in the afternoon British troops arrived and rapidly called for the airstrikes on the compound, alliance officials said. Although scores, maybe hundreds of fighters, are thought to have been killed in the strikes, they said men were alive in the basement of at least one building.

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