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Afghanistan: Prison Riot Quelled, Marines Establish Base To Search For Bin Laden

  • Bruce Pannier

In Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance has finally quelled a deadly riot at a prison near Mazar-i-Sharif with the help of U.S. and British forces. Meanwhile, U.S. warplanes targeted a suspected Taliban command center near Kandahar, and U.S. Marines continue to stream into a base near Kandahar in an effort to apprehend suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and members of his Al-Qaeda network. But despite the continued fighting, the western Afghan city of Herat held elections for mayor today, a small but hopeful sign that stability may slowly be returning to the country.

Prague, 28 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Northern Alliance says it has retaken a prison fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif, eliminating the last pockets of resistance from rebellious pro-Taliban prisoners of war.

Abdul Atif, a general in charge of the Alliance forces, is today quoted by a Western news agency (AFP) as saying that 450 pro-Taliban fighters were killed and that "none wanted to surrender."

Many of those killed had been sent to Mazar-i-Sharif after they had surrendered last weekend in the city of Kondoz. Some of the prisoners reportedly stormed an armory on the night of 25 November and attacked Northern Alliance troops. U.S. warplanes and U.S. and British forces on the ground assisted the Northern Alliance in quelling the riot.

Reporters were discouraged from visiting the scene of the fighting, but an Associated Press photographer who managed to do so described some 50 bodies in a field. He said all of the dead fighters had their arms bound.

Unconfirmed reports from the area spoke of Arabs, Chechens, and Pakistanis as being the primary victims. Red Cross workers are removing some of the bodies for burial. The organization is requesting permission from local field commanders to remove all the bodies.

The human rights watchdog group Amnesty International is calling for an inquiry into the events in Mazar-i-Sharif. It said such an inquiry should result in recommendations to ensure that similar instances of surrender and the holding of prisoners do not lead to such loss of life.

A Northern Alliance commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, toured the area yesterday and rejected claims by human rights groups that the prisoners were slaughtered. Dostum is quoted by the Associated Press as saying alliance troops "behaved in a brotherly way with them. We treated the prisoners according to human rights."

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Kenton Keith, said the killings in Mazar-i-Sharif were not a massacre but the result of a pitched battle. The German news agency dpa quotes Keith as saying: "It was a situation where people who were inside the fort took weapons. We have no reason to conclude the Northern Alliance forces were acting without restraint."

In a separate development, U.S. warplanes yesterday bombed a compound in Afghanistan reportedly used by top Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders. The planes attacked the suspected headquarters near Kandahar, the last major city still held by the Taliban, after the U.S. military received information that the compound was occupied by high-level Taliban officials, members of bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network, and Wafa, a Saudi Arabian humanitarian group that the U.S. says has aided bin Laden.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld confirmed at a press conference yesterday the attack on the headquarters. He did not provide details about who may have been hiding there, but he indicated that damage to the facility was substantial.

"There has been an [U.S.] attack from the air on a [Taliban] leadership compound southeast of Kandahar. Whoever was there is going to wish they weren't."

The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, is quoted by the Afghan Islamic Press today as saying Taliban leader Mullah Omar was not hurt in the attack and remains "safe and sound." Zaeef said that not only did Mullah Omar escape the attack but that no other Taliban leaders were present at the headquarters during the strike.

The strikes came as up to 600 U.S. Marines continued to stream into a base 100 kilometers southwest of Kandahar that was established three days ago. Up to a thousand Marines will eventually be based there. The U.S. intends to use the base to stage searches for bin Laden and members of Al-Qaeda.

And while representatives of various Afghan factions are meeting near Bonn, Germany, to consider the formation of a new government for the country, the city of Herat went ahead with elections for a new mayor today.

The city was only liberated from the Taliban earlier this month, but several hundred electors nevertheless met at Herat's main mosque to pick a new mayor. Voting started this morning, with 714 electors selected to represent geographical areas in the city casting their ballots for eight candidates.

It was the first election since the former king, Zahir Shah, fled the country in 1973.