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Afghanistan: Amnesty To Investigate Deaths At Prison Riot Near Mazar-i-Sharif

  • Bruce Pannier

There are many questions regarding the deaths of hundreds of pro-Taliban prisoners who rioted in a compound in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif earlier this week. The Northern Alliance says the fighters refused to surrender and were killed in gun battles with its soldiers. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, say the event points to the need for greater care in the taking and keeping of prisoners.

Prague, 29 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The British newspaper "The Guardian" described it as "a death scene that Dante or Bosch might have conjured up."

Other media reports used words like "hellish" and "grisly" to describe the scene in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif following a prison riot that was violently put down by Northern Alliance troops, with the help of U.S. and British forces. According to the Northern Alliance, 450 pro-Taliban prisoners were killed in the rebellion.

Pictures broadcast by international television networks such as CNN and the BBC graphically showed the destruction at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress outside Mazar-i-Sharif. Dead bodies and body parts were strewn across the ground between bombed out buildings. More disturbing were pictures of Northern Alliance soldiers prying gold fillings from the teeth of dead pro-Taliban fighters and making off with shoes and anything else of value.

Judith Arenas is a spokesperson for the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International. The organization released a statement calling for an inquiry into the events in Mazar-i-Sharif.

"Taliban prisoners that were held in the fort at Mazar-i-Sharif that had been escorted from Kondoz to Mazar-i-Sharif apparently mutinied. How many we don't know. We don't know the circumstances surrounding that. All we do know then is that initial reports say that British and U.S. forces were apparently involved in the fighting. They directed U.S. strikes to bomb the fort and obviously the Northern Alliance retaliated and fought back. What we have to date is a sketchy picture, but a horrible picture, of the ground littered with bodies."

Some members of the British Parliament are also calling for an investigation into the events at Mazar-i-Sharif.

How the 25 November prison mutiny began is unclear. Some reports say a Chechen mercenary fighting with the Taliban exploded a hand grenade, killing himself and nearby soldiers from the Northern Alliance. Other reports say the arrival of two agents from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to interrogate foreign prisoners triggered the riot. Other reports cite the lack of security and of the misplaced trust of Northern Alliance troops, who did not properly search or confine the prisoners.

General Balkhi, a Northern Alliance commander responsible for the district where the prison is located, gave this description of what happened to RFE/RL's Persian Service: "On Sunday [25 November], during an interrogation of officers, they attacked the guards, took their weapons, and started the riot. There was shooting inside the building. There was an ammunition depot nearby, which they seized. Then large-scale fighting started, which lasted three days."

However it began, it soon escalated. The Northern Alliance, with the help of U.S. and British forces on the scene, counterattacked. U.S. warplanes bombed the prisoners as they took up positions in the fort. Northern Alliance troops used machine guns, rocket launchers, and tanks to subdue the rebellion. The riot was finally quashed yesterday (28 November). The first stories filed by journalists indicated how horrible the fighting had been.

Arenas said Amnesty International estimates at least 500 people were killed in the battle, most of them prisoners. The Northern Alliance, according to a local commander, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, lost about 40 soldiers in the fighting. The U.S. confirmed that a CIA agent was also killed.

General Balkhi said the Northern Alliance had little choice but to kill the rebellious prisoners, "They resisted until the end and were killed."

But images of the dead prisoners -- thought to be mainly Arabs, Pakistanis, and Chechens -- lying in fields as Northern Alliance troops walked by, kicking their corpses, have sparked concern about the way in which the war against terrorism in Afghanistan is being waged.

Equally disturbing are reports that some of the dead prisoners were found with their hands bound. There were also reports of bodies lined up on the ground, a possible indication they had been executed.

Taken as an isolated incident, the battle at the prison in Mazar-i-Sharif might have passed as an unfortunate occurrence in time of war. But Arenas of Amnesty International says there had already been concerns about the conditions that prisoners from Mazar-i-Sharif were being held under by the Northern Alliance, despite claims by Dostum that his troops had been treating the prisoners humanely before they rioted.

"We had images of people being held in containers, in very poor conditions, with limited access to food and water, and, indeed, medical care. The other thing is that this wasn't the first killing that has been reported. In fact, we've heard constant reports of killings by the Northern Alliance."

One of those reports came from the Afghan town of Takhtapul, between Kandahar and the Pakistani border, where last week a Pashtun tribal group, reportedly with American soldiers present, killed some 160 Taliban fighters. Both the Western news agency Reuters and the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported the killings, quoting an unnamed field commander as saying Taliban troops had first been given the chance to surrender before a decision was reportedly made to kill them. The report has not been confirmed.

Back in Mazar-i-Sharif, workers from the International Red Cross were busy today gathering the bodies of the pro-Taliban prisoners for burial. The full story of what happened during the prison riot may never be fully known. But the Northern Alliance did say today that it will allow Amnesty International to investigate. Spokesman Mohammad Habeel said in Kabul that there will be "no hindrance" to the investigation.

(RFE/RL's Persian Service contributed to this report.)