War Crimes Witness

Here is a blow by blow description from a Times reporter on the scene. American G.I.s Battle the Taliban

A revolt by P.O.W.s pits American ground forces against the Taliban; Time's Alex Perry reports from Mazar-i-sharif via satellite phone as the fighting goes on

Time Magazine Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001

On Saturday, 800 Taliban soldiers surrendered to the forces of Gen. Rashid Dostum, a leading commander of the Northern Alliance. But on Sunday, the prisoners decided to rebel, grabbing weapons from an armory at the local fort and attacking the Northern Alliance. At least two American soldiers were trapped in the fort when it happened and at least one is dead. American and British forces have now joined in trying to quell the attack. Time’s Alex Perry is on the scene and provided these details via satellite phone to newsdesk editor John Flowers as the fighting raged.

How far are you from the fighting now?

200 yards

These are taliban troops that surrendered yesterday from Kunduz?

Yeah. That's right. Drove opver toward Mazar laid down their weapons and were taken by Dostum's people. They laid down their weapons, then they were taken in trucks to Kalai Jangi on the West of Mazar-i-Sharif.

How many are involved in this fight right now?

800 [all]

How many American troops are fighting?

There's British and American. They're fighting together. There's a hand-full of them. I would say 12. They came in two jeeps.

12 Americans and British total?

Yes. There's British SAF and American Air Force uniforms they've got on. The British Air are in plain clothes, the Americans are in uniform.

They're not fighting all 800 of these men are they?

Yeah. They are. With the Northern Alliance.

So this is 12 alongside the Northern Alliance?

But the Americans are running the show.

What do you mean by "running the show?"

Well the Americans and the British are coordinating airstrikes from their positions inside the fort on another part of the fort. And they're also directing the commanders inside when to tell their men to attack.

Are they exchanging fire as well?

Yeah, they are. They are. [gunfire] Jesus. Some guy's just letting off a gun for no reason. Part of the American forces and the British forces are coordinating airstrikes. there's a group of ... six who are coordinating the airstrikes. Those are the guys I was with. And then there are another six or seven who are fighting the Taliban on the West side of the fort. The southwest side. The Taliban are holed off in a pocket on the southwest side. The bomb spotters are on the southeast side, on the roof of a two-story building.

The reason they're here is that earlier when the Taliban grabbed some guns and started fighting, there were two American soldiers inside the fort: one of whom was disarmed and killed -- he was called Mike -- and another one was also in trouble; he was out of ammunition, had managed to sort of hold off the Taliban with his pistol but he was out of ammunition when the main body of American and British people arrived. There's no word on his fate yet. But the Americans were mounting a rescue operation.

And this is all happening inside the fort?

Yeah, it's all inside the fort.

Explain how this transpired. They were brought to KJ in pickup trucks and nobody searched for guns that might have not been in the open on their body. Then last night one of them pulled out this grenade, denotated it and killed himself ... and there's two commanders now dead [referring to grenade] and a British journalist [from ITN] was slightly injured in that explosion as well. Very minor.

Did they decide to search them after that?

I'm not sure. I don't know about that. And then this morning some more journalists came. There was a guy from ... London and a woman. They were interviewing Taliban prisoners when the Taliban suddenly just pounched on them. They beat the British guy quite badly, but he was rescued and taken out of the fort. But that's when the Taliban grabbed guns off the Northen Alliance, overpowered them, killed at least twenty and the Northern Alliance lost control of the fort and had to withdraw from the fort.

Do you know what set them off?

Actually I think it was probably the British journalist. It's merely the sight of a Western face. They're here to fight a jihad; they see a western face; they assume that's who they've come to get.

Would being interviewed by a woman also have anything to do with it?

No. She was outside.

This happened when they talked to the British journalist?

Yeah. That's right.

Now is he OK?

You said they beat him up pretty badly. We passed him in a taxi. [gunfire again] He was kind of sitting up. He looked pretty shocked. I'm going to see him a bit later. I think he's got sort of flesh wounds. i don't know if he's got any broken bones. I could tell he was beaten quite badly.

So the shock of seeing his face, they rose up, they overcame their captors and took the gun from the Northern Alliance. That's right. The NA lost control.

So those two Americans. They happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Absolutely. There were also some Red Cross workers in there. They told me that one American Special Forces broke into their meeting, said they had to get out of here, out of the fort, because the situation was out of control.

And then they got out?

Yeah. They jumped over the wall.

Now have there been any other injuries as far as the alliance. One confirmed death and one possible?

Among Northern Alliance, there were at least twenty dead in the initial, when the taliban overpowered their alliance guards. I've heard there's probably 3, 400 hundred Taliban [dead] now. The mission by the Americans and Northern alliance is to kill every single one of them now.

These are among the thousand that surrendered yesterday, correct?

Yeah 800. They're all here. There's wild rumors that this must have been a plan, in fact, to surrender and then try and take the fort from the inside. That's NA speculation.

Now have they completely taken over the fort or is the battle happening inside the walls the fort?

This is happening inside the fort. They never took the entire fort.

How big is this fort?

It's about half a kilometer long and half a kilometer -- it's half a kilometer square. It's pretty big. Ooooohhhh, big explosion.

Are these mainly automatic and semiautomatic rifle fire, or is there anything heavier?

No, there are two tanks inside, two NA tanks that are being used. and the Americans have made nine air strikes so far. It's an incredible thing to watch. You can see the missiles coming in.

So you're 200 hundred yards away from these missiles striking down?

When I was with the special forces I think I was about 50 yards [he begins to laugh]

Right now you're 200 yards away from the taliban or where the fighting is?

From the fighting. We're outside the fort. Right outside the city walls.

So this revolt and is being staged entirely within the confines of the fort and as far as dostum and the rest of the na know has nothing to do with taking over kunduz?

Nothing to do with any of that. I think that the Taliban are pretty much convinced that they're going to get killed I think. Dostum has fairly fearsome reputation. He's run over his prisoners with tanks before now.

During this engagement or back in the late '90s?

I think it was '96-97 he was doing that. He's given them the assurance that they'll be safe but they're unlikely to trust him. If they get any opportunity to fight I think some of them are going to take it. There are supposed to be as well as Afghans, some Arabs and Chechens and some al-Qaeda operatives [gun firing again]

What about al-Qaeda operatives?

There are supposed to be some with the group fighting.

Are most of these Afghans?

Yeah. I think they're mostly Afghans. But no one knows to be really honest. The prisoners aren't saying. They'll say that they are all Afghans so that they're treated a little bit better than if they said they were Pakistani or Saudi or something.

Now is the plan just to go in and sweep them out?

Yeah. The American mission is two-fold. It's to wipe them out. And it's also to get -- they've got one last [American] in there they're trying to get out. As far as I could hear, they were still alive when I was there. They were organized ---

How long ago was that?

Half an hour ago. They were trying to organize air strikes and cover fire so that he could make a run for it.

I'm still hearing the occasional shot. Is it dying down now or is it still going on?

No, no. It's still going on. It's not as fierce as it was. Earlier we were hearing a lot of AK-47 fire and a lot of M-4 fire, the American Special Forces rifle. So there was probably some hand to hand combat, but that's not happening at the moment. But there's still shots and explosions -- There's another one. A of tracer fire [as tracer fire goes overhead]

What could have gone wrong?

Well, as much as I hate to say it, letting journalists in among Taliban. He [The UK guy] was surrounded by taliban. When I've been talking to them, I've been keeping at least three or four meters distance and the Northern Alliance with me have been extremely nervous about letting me get close. They say that the Taliban are likely to try and kill me.

So there were none or few NA guards?

There were a few Northern Alliance guards and they were the only ones that had the weapons, but by simple sheer force of numbers the Taliban could overwhelm them. That was a very bad I think. And then we saw a lot of Northern Alliance soldiers fleeing, some of them dropped their guns. I should also say that there are two Reuters journalists trapped inside there.

Any others trapped?

Maybe some Northern Alliance people as well. Well, almost certainly. It's gone quiet now. Suddenly. But the trouble was that the Taliban had gotten themselves into a position in the fort where they had access to the armory.

Were they kept close to the armory?

I don't know where they were kept. I think they were kept in the basement. Then stormed out of the basement and stormed Southwest part of the fort where there were six or seven jeeps full of ammunition. That was, in fact, what the Americans were trying to hit. To destroy their supplies [and] provide one almighty explosion that would kill a lot of them.

The NA don't keep their weapons under lock and key?

No, they're incredibly casual with their weapons. They just lay them against the wall, lie them on the ground. They're always on their sholder or just knocking against the back of a chair [Gun shot]. When you leave in the morning, you put your shoes on, put your hat on and get your gun.

We keep hearing that if the taliban surrender, the NA would be glad to have them on their side. Do you think that's going to change now?

Well, this particuarly group have no chance of survival. They are going to get wiped out. If the Americans don't do it, then the Alliance are going to execute them. We saw some Taliban dead today. There were some who had managed to break out of the fort and they'd been shot between the eyes. As for the grand plan, it's certainly going to undermine it, but in some sense it's the only option if Afghanistan is going to have any chance at peace.

If push comes to shove Right. But you've got to say that this isn't the most auspicious start for that push for peace. What time did this begin?

The firing started about 11:30 [in the morning]. It's now a quarter to six. You can see fires burning. But I can't hear any more weapons. American planes are still searching overhead though. The Americans arrived at about 2.

Where were they before this?

The British said they were in Mazar. The Americans I think came from Samirghan. Certainly one of them did. I saw him. He was on his way there and he came back today.

The fighting started at 11:30 and the americans came at 2, but there were two americans trapped there. They were trapped at 2 or 11:30?

They got trapped in there about 11:30. There was one guy who was trapped. They were Special Forces. They were probably going to have a meeting with the commander; I'm not quite sure why they were there. One of them was trapped. The other one wasn't initially trapped, because he advised the Red Cross workers to leave. And he was with them and they got out. He stayed behind to try and help his friend. Which one was mike again?

Mike was the dead one.

Do you know the name of the other one?

No, I don't.

What's going on now?

There's great clouds of smoke rising from the fort, from bombing and from fires burning. The fort itself is of mud walls. The walls are about 20 meters high, but you can scale the side. [more gun shots] I wish that guy would stop doing that.

Is some guy just shooting his rifle off next to you?

It's a local farmer. He occasionally just fires his gun into the fort for no apparent reason.

Is there a town inside the fort?

There is a little town here, outside the fort. The civilians were evacuated. Andwe're sort of just sitting in a ditch now with a bunch of Northern Alliance guys taking cover.

That sounds good We've got tracers going over our head. We're going to have to go get a taxi because they stop running at night. goto www.afghan-web.com/aop/ptoday.html for other stories.

======================= AFP Sunday December 2, 1:22 AM

The US-led coalition fighting in Afghanistan and the Northern Alliance came under fire for ruling out an inquiry into the killing of hundreds of Taliban prisoners during a revolt in northern Afghanistan this week. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, called for a probe into the suppression of the armed Taliban uprising at a prison fortress near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Amnesty International said "serious abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law may have been committed".

Faced with growing calls for a probe into whether a massacre had been committed by the Northern Alliance, supported by the US and Britain, the US-led coalition insisted the prisoners themselves were responsible for the slaughter.

US warplanes bombed the fortress and US and British special forces were seen fighting alongside Northern Alliance soldiers to put down the revolt at the Qala-e-Jangi fortress 10 kilometres (six miles) west of Mazar-i-Sharif from Sunday to Wednesday.

"There are a lot of disturbing reports coming out," Robinson told BBC World Service news. "If there are contraventions of standards -- prisoners or civilians -- the leaders of forces should be disqualified from a future government.

"And the worst perpetrators should be brought to justice," Robinson said, adding that a probe would be "a standard-setting exercise".

"It's a reminder to all parties that the Geneva Conventions apply and international humanitarian law applies," she added.

The Geneva Convention on rights in wartime bans all indiscriminate attacks and makes it illegal to order that there shall be no survivors.

But British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw ruled out an inquiry.

"The idea that at this moment we could have a judicial inquiry into the difficult circumstances of Mazar-i-Sharif is frankly not on," Straw told BBC radio.

"The situation there was absolutely terrible, everybody accepts that, and there was this slaughter of prisoners. But this is not some easy Western circumstance. This was in the middle of a terrible situation where law and order had broken down."

Amnesty condemned Britain's stance.

"The rejection of an inquiry by the United Kingdom into what is apparently the single most bloody incident of the war ... raises questions about their commitment to the rule of law," Amnesty said in a statement.

"What can there be to fear from an inquiry except the truth and a clear message that impunity will not be tolerated?"

A spokesman for the US-led coalition also rejected Amnesty's call.

"We have to say that we can see no need for an inquiry as proposed. There is no evidence that unarmed prisoners were summarily killed," coalition spokesman Kenton Keith told a news conference in Islamabad.

"Mazar-i-Sharif was a protracted battle against armed Taliban fighters who refused to surrender.

"There is no evidence that the Northern Alliance carried out mass executions ... in Mazar-i-Sharif, Kabul, Kunduz or anywhere else."

Alliance commanders said around 450 Taliban soldiers died in the battles which followed the uprising.

The revolt began when some of the prisoners seized their captors' weapons. They were believed to include members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, and had surrendered only days earlier from the northern city of Kunduz.

Amnesty said an international investigation involving the United Nations should be considered if the US-led coalition refused to do its own.

The human rights group had earlier called for an investigation to be led by Britain, the United States and the Northern Alliance, to make urgent recommendations on how to avoid similar carnage in future.

"An urgent inquiry should look into what triggered this violent incident, including any shortcomings in the holding and processing of the prisoners, and into the proportionality of the response by United Front, US and UK forces," Amnesty said on Tuesday.

Keith, who previously said the "status" of the prisoners changed as soon as they took up arms, refused to be drawn on who ordered the air strikes against the Taliban troops in the sprawling prison compound.

"What happened at Mazar-i-Sharif was the fault of the Taliban prisoners," he said.

One Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative was killed in the uprising, the first US combat casualty of the war in Afghanistan.

BBC News Sunday, 2 December, 2001, 03:06 GMT

Red Cross workers have been clearing away the bodies More than 80 survivors are reported to have come out alive from the ruins of an Afghan fort-prison where hundreds of their colleagues were killed in a three-day revolt earlier this week.

A New York Times journalist, James Hill, told the BBC that 13 men surrendered on Friday - the rest emerged on Saturday after Northern Alliance forces flooded their hiding place in the fort's basement.

Speaking to the BBC World Service programme Newshour, Mr Hill said it appeared the men - many of whom were badly injured - had run out of ammunition and had not eaten for several days.

He said he believed the wounded were being taken to hospital, while the fittest of the survivors would be interrogated by troops under the Northern Alliance commander in the area, General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

A Red Cross official in Kabul, Bernard Berret, said their officials were trying to gain access to check on the condition of the detainees.

General Dostum: Prisoners "not mistreated" The uprising by the foreign Taleban fighters began on Sunday and was not finally suppressed until Northern Alliance troops were given substantial support by special forces from the US and UK.

At least 30 air strikes were launched against the Qala-e-Jhangi fort, where the prisoners had been taken after surrendering at the northern city of Kunduz.

It has become one of the most controversial chapters in the Afghan war, with human rights groups demanding an inquiry into the deaths of the prisoners.

Burning oil

James Hill said all the soldiers found on Saturday had faces blackened with soot.

This is believed to be from burning oil which Northern Alliance soldiers poured into their hiding place on Tuesday to kill them or force them out.

"A lot of them are seriously wounded, bullet wounds to the chest, to the legs," Mr Hill said.

The prisoners included Pakistanis, Arabs and Afghans.

One prisoner told Mr Hill that the corpses below had been so badly burned that they were completely unrecognisable.

Row over inquiry

On Friday UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson said she would support an international inquiry into the killing of the prisoners.

The alliance says it lost about 40 soldiers The US and British Governments say no inquiry is needed.

It is not clear how the uprising started.

The Northern Alliance said the prisoners launched an attack when an alliance general went to reassure them that they would be well treated.

Other reports said the fighting started when US secret agents began questioning the prisoners to ascertain if any had links to Bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation.

A number of the dead prisoners were found with their hands tied behind their backs.