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Afghanistan: Conflicting Statements On Kondoz May Reveal Rifts Within Northern Alliance

Fighting continued today around the encircled northern Afghan city of Kondoz amidst conflicting reports about talks on a surrender deal with the Taliban. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports that conflicting statements by different anti-Taliban commanders may reflect rivalries between Northern Alliance factions over who eventually will control Kondoz.

Prague, 23 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Forces from the Northern Alliance today launched fresh attacks on Taliban fighters who have been surrounded in Kondoz -- the last major city in northern Afghanistan still under Taliban control.

Alliance fighters were using tanks, rockets, and artillery against targets within the Kondoz encirclement. The anti-Taliban forces were firing from three sides of the city. At the same time, U.S. B-52 bombers continued to strike at suspected Taliban targets.

Several thousand hard-core Taliban fighters and foreigners -- including Pakistanis, Arabs, and Chechens -- are still thought to be among those trapped in Kondoz. There have been talks on their possible surrender for more than a week. But commanders from different factions of the Northern Alliance are telling different stories about the status of those talks.

General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who commands mainly ethnic Uzbek forces, says he has reached a surrender deal with a Taliban commander in Kondoz -- General Mullah Faizal. Dostum said he plans to meet with Taliban commanders again tomorrow to work out details on how some 14,000 Taliban and foreign fighters will surrender.

But other Northern Alliance officials say they doubt that non-Afghan troops will give themselves up because they will face criminal trials if captured. Threats by rank-and-file members of the Northern Alliance to kill all foreign Taliban fighters in Afghanistan also have raised fears among the foreign volunteers that they will be targeted for retribution after they surrender.

Those fears were not eased by an announcement by the International Red Cross today that between 400-600 bodies were found in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif after it was captured by the Northern Alliance two weeks ago. The Red Cross says it cannot immediately determine whether the dead had been executed or were killed in fighting.

Remarks by Alliance General Mohammad Daoud are among the clearest signs of division between Northern Alliance leaders over who should control Kondoz.

Daoud's forces have been advancing from the southeast of the city while Dostum's troops are further to the west near Mazar-i-Shariff. Daoud said Dostum's current position means that he should not try to take the city.

Some Northern Alliance leaders suggest that Dostum wants to broker a surrender deal so that his troops can march into Kondoz rather than his rivals within the Northern Alliance. Others complain that Taliban hard-liners have no intention of surrendering but are merely trying to exploit the rivalries within the alliance to their advantage.

Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yonus Qanooni denies that General Dostum has reached any deal with the Taliban. Qanooni says attacks were launched yesterday and today because the pro-Taliban foreigners in Kondoz refuse to give up.

Northern Alliance Deputy Defense Minister General Atiqullah Baryalai told RFE/RL today that his troops are holding back from a full assault on Kondoz because the surrender talks have been inconclusive.

"We have not yet received the Taliban's final word. As soon as we have their final response, we will take the necessary action. We have not offered them a cease-fire, but have promised not to attack until the end of negotiations."

Baryalai said a full assault will be launched on Kondoz if all of the trapped fighters do not surrender soon.

"If they are not ready [to give up] the foreign Taliban, then we will certainly attack them."

For its part, the United States has said that it does not want any of the defenders of Kondoz to escape. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw backed that view today in Pakistan when he announced that Britain wants any captured Taliban fighters or foreigners in Kondoz to be detained and sent to trial.

"If people have been fighting for the Taliban, as is the case for any other combatants in a similar conflict, then they stand to be detained if they are surrendered. They can't expect to go free."

Northern Alliance General Ostad Atta Muhammad skipped the latest talks on a surrender deal, apparently in protest to reports that Dostum had offered Taliban fighters from Afghanistan amnesty and safe passage to their home provinces. While General Dostum is a former communist who fought alongside Soviet troops in Afghanistan in 1980, General Muhammad was a member of the mujahideen that fought against the Soviet forces.

Andrei Babitsky, RFE/RL's correspondent in northern Afghanistan, quotes a deputy commander of frontline Alliance troops as saying tensions among Taliban forces in Kondoz appear to be growing as some factions of the Northern Alliance press on with their attacks.

"He says that there are reports coming in about disturbances in Kondoz sparked by differences between different groups of Taliban -- from among the locals and the foreigners. [The deputy commander] also said that there currently are no [formal] negotiations with the Taliban command. There are contacts only between commanders directly at the frontlines."

Correspondents say Taliban commanders along different parts of the front have been using radio communications today to discuss their own possible surrender.