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Alliance Reports Planes Flew Into Kunduz to Rescue Fighters

Alliance Reports Planes Flew Into Kunduz to Rescue Fighters

Author: Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall
Publication: The New York Times
Date: November 23, 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 it 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 hard-core 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 Jalalabad in northeastern Afghanistan, within 40 miles of the Pakistan border. Rumors are rife in Jalalabad that the accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden may be among them, possibly in an area of jagged ridges called Tora Bora.

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, whose government is concerned about preventing the deaths of Pakistani nationals.

The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, met with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, in Islamabad today and said that 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 insure their safe surrender. But the Americans and British said they did not have troops to monitor a hand-over of soldiers.

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

"We are not interested in having a large, long-term presence of any kind or managing P.O.W.'s," the American official said. "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," the official said, 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 would 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 potential prisoners.

At the same time, the Northern Alliance, in the face an array of conflicting signals, 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 they reach the interior of Kunduz.

But the fortunes of the foreign Taliban troops remained a source of serious dispute within the Northern Alliance today.

Some alliance officials today 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 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 fighters in the city at 3,000.

The agreement is fraught with potential problems that could transform an orderly surrender into a pitched battle. The trickiest unresolved issue is the future of the foreign soldiers. 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. Some Northern Alliance leaders wanted to arrest the two, but ultimately they decided to give them a chance.

"When Mullah Dadullah 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 diehard 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.

"They have a mind, they know what they are doing," General Mohammed said. "They came to fight our people. They also supported the Taliban."

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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