Hundreds of Taliban prisoners rioted Sunday inside a military fortress in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e Sharif. U.S. warplanes bombed the prison to help quell the uprising, and most of the prisoners were killed, officials said.
Witnesses said a U.S. soldier had been killed in the fighting, but Pentagon officials said no military personnel were dead or wounded.
The riot broke out as Northern Alliance commanders claimed their troops had captured Kunduz, the Taliban's final stronghold in the north. Thousands of Taliban fighters were leaving the city Sunday and retreating to the west, with alliance fighters in pursuit, alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah said by satellite telephone from northern Afghanistan.
The rebels' deputy defense minister, Atiqullah Baryalai, said his fighters had taken the city, but the claim could not be independently confirmed. Gen. Daoud Khan, the Northern Alliance commander at Taloqan, announced that his troops had reached the northern reaches of Kunduz and later also claimed that the city was under alliance control.
Kunduz, under siege since Nov. 12, has been the scene of mass defections and surrenders by Taliban fighters in recent days amid heavy U.S. bombing.
Many of the fighters who remained inside Kunduz during the siege are foreigners who have held out, possibly because they fear summary executions by the rebels.
The estimated 300 prisoners who revolted in Mazar-e Sharif's Qalai Janghi fortress were mostly Chechens, Pakistanis and Arabs who had surrendered Saturday in Kunduz. U.S. officials said the fighters apparently smuggled weapons into the mud-walled fortress under their tunics and tried to fight their way out.
Witnesses said the uprising began when prisoners grabbed hand grenades and blew up guards and themselves. That allowed other prisoners to seize Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons.
Northern Alliance Gen. Rashid Dostum, who had accepted the foreigners' surrender, brought in 500 soldiers to quell the rebellion, aided by the U.S. bombers. The alliance said most of the prisoners were killed.
"We provided air strikes in support of opposition forces," said Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking, a Defense Department spokesman. "After they did counterattack with the support of the air strikes, the Northern Alliance has stated that the situation is completely under control."
American reported killed
Though the Pentagon said it did not appear that any U.S. military personnel were even on the prison grounds, a German television crew on the scene taped what it said was a U.S. soldier who had been inside the fortress. "I don't know how many Americans there were," the soldier said. "I think one was killed, but I'm not sure. There were two of us at least, me and some other guy."
A Time magazine correspondent on the scene also reported that a U.S. fighter was dead.
"There were two American soldiers inside the fort, one of whom was disarmed and killed," the correspondent said in a satellite telephone report posted on Time's Web site. "He was called Mike. And another one was also in trouble. ... There's no word on his fate yet, but the Americans were mounting a rescue operation."
The CIA also has operatives working with anti-Taliban forces within Afghanistan. Pentagon spokesmen declined to comment on the activities of non-military personnel, and a CIA spokesman said the agency had no comment on the matter.
The riot suggested that pockets of fierce resistance remain in Afghanistan, especially on the part of non-Afghan soldiers--primarily Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs--who have fought alongside the Taliban for five years. Many are loyal to Osama bin Laden, who the Bush administration holds responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Holdouts at Kunduz
The foreign fighters were one of the reasons for the delay in the surrender of Kunduz. Afghan Taliban leaders have shown a much greater interest in surrendering than the non-Afghan troops fighting alongside them.
As surrender talks dragged on over the past week, Northern Alliance leaders continued to press toward the city.
Late Sunday, Dostum and a rival rebel commander, Mohammad Daoud, were advancing on the city, and the town of Khanabad on Kunduz's eastern front apparently had fallen. There were conflicting reports on whether rebel troops had captured Kunduz, but at the very minimum they appeared poised to flood into the city Monday.
Thousands of Taliban fighters have defected or surrendered from Kunduz in recent days. Some were received warmly by their former adversaries, and most apparently will melt back into the Afghan population, where U.S. leaders have expressed little concern that they will cause further trouble.
The fate of the foreigners is less clear. Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the Northern Alliance, has said that any who are captured will be handed over to the United Nations, but others have suggested that they would be tried by Islamic courts in Afghanistan.
Most of the foreign fighters have surrendered to Dostum, who has said he favors trying them in international courts.
The loss of Kunduz would mean that the Taliban has been routed in about three-quarters of Afghanistan, leaving only the country's southwestern portion, centered on Kandahar, under the control of the hard-line Islamists.
The Taliban also was facing great pressure in Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the movement as well as its strongest base.
Forces under Gul Agha Shirzai, the former governor of Kandahar, gained two more cities Sunday north of Takhta Pol, a town on the ancient Silk Road between the Pakistan-Afghan border and the Taliban stronghold. The forces plan to advance on the Kandahar airport Monday.
Fearing an onslaught from opposition fighters, the Taliban had deployed thousands of extra troops to the border town of Spin Boldak. Shirzai's apparent victory at Takhta Pol on Saturday cut them off from Kandahar.
Fighters with Shirzai said six of their men were killed during the fighting. Taliban officials in Spin Boldak downplayed Shirzai's victory, saying the captured towns were small villages and that their troops will recapture them.
Talks sought with Taliban
Meanwhile, in Quetta in southwest Pakistan, more than 70 tribal elders, clerics and former mujahedeen decided to send a delegation to Afghanistan to try yet again to negotiate with the Taliban.
Afghan experts fear that with so many groups jockeying for power in a future Kandahar, there will be anarchy in the walled city after the Taliban leaves. At the same time, the majority ethnic Pashtuns worry that if they do not unite now, they will be usurped in a future government by Northern Alliance forces, who are made up largely of Tajiks and Uzbeks.
The future distribution of power between the Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns is a major source of contention as diplomats from around the world intensify negotiations for a post-Taliban government. The Taliban and the southern tribes are largely comprised of Pashtuns.
A conference of Afghanistan's major factions is scheduled for this week in Germany to establish an interim government.
As the territory controlled by the Taliban continued to shrink, U.S. and Afghan opposition forces intensified their hunt for bin Laden.
The Saudi exile reportedly has been sighted in recent days at a well-fortified encampment near the village of Tora Bora, about 35 miles southwest of Jalalabad. The encampment is nestled in forbidding, inaccessible terrain riddled with mountain caves and forts. Bin Laden was said to be protected by as many as 2,000 experienced fighters.
Bin Laden aide reported dead
The Northern Alliance said Sunday that a top associate of bin Laden, Juma Namangani, was killed recently in a U.S. bombing attack. Namangani, also known as Jumaboi Khojiev, allegedly had used bases in Afghanistan to wage a guerrilla war against the secular government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.
Namangani, 32, was convicted in absentia for a series of bomb blasts in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in 1999. His death could not be independently confirmed.
In the United States, the Bush administration focused on the economic fallout from the terrorist attacks, urging the Senate to pass a stimulus package. The House last month passed a $100billion package, including about $60 billion in tax breaks for corporations.
But Senate Democrats have countered with a plan of their own, a $73 billion proposal that focuses on helping the unemployed and would provide "rebate" checks to 45 million Americans. Negotiations over the two competing versions has stalled, and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill urged action Sunday.
"The Senate has dithered an awful long time in responding to the president's request for a stimulus package," O'Neill said on CNN's "Late Edition" program. "Hopefully this next week, when they come back from their weeklong Thanksgiving recess, they will finally just pull together."
Naftali Bendavid reported from Washington and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah from Pakistan. Tribune wire services contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times