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Afghanistan: UN Exhumes Taliban, Hazara Corpses From Mass Graves

The United Nations says forensic scientists have found evidence of summary executions and death by suffocation at several mass graves in northern and central Afghanistan. The most recent graves appeared to be Taliban fighters who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance late last year. But an older grave in central Afghanistan appears to contain ethnic Hazaras who were killed when their region was under the control of the Taliban.

Prague 8 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations' chief spokesman in Afghanistan says a team of forensic scientists has discovered evidence of executions and death by suffocation at a series of mass graves in northern and central Afghanistan.

The evidence suggests that the graves are unrelated. The oldest grave, in the central province of Bamiyan, contained ethnic Hazaras who were executed within the last three years, when the Taliban still controlled that region.

The newest graves, in the north, appear to contain Taliban fighters who had surrendered to the Northern Alliance late last year.

The largest site is at Dasht-i-Laili, just a few kilometers from the Shibergan desert to the west of Mazar-i-Sharif.

UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said some of the bodies exhumed there appear to have been buried while the victims were still alive.

Almeida did not specify the number of bodies thought to be at the Shibergan site. But he said 15 bodies were taken from a small test area that has been excavated so far. Western journalists who have visited the site say the mass grave appears to hold the bodies of hundreds of men.

And authorities who conducted three autopsies there confirm that all appear to be Pashtuns -- the ethnic group that is predominant in southern Afghanistan. Most members of the Taliban were Pashtun.

Northern Alliance soldiers who recaptured the northern part of the country from the Taliban last year have been accused of massacring hundreds of prisoners who had surrendered at Kondoz and Mazar-i-Sharif. The evidence uncovered by the UN team so far supports stories told by Taliban survivors of the notorious Shibergan prison.

Sardar Mohammad, a 23-year-old former Taliban fighter from Kandahar who was captured at Kondoz last year, says he was among thousands of prisoners who were sealed in metal containers and left in the desert for days without food or water.

He says he and other Taliban survivors of the ordeal counted more than 1,000 prisoners who suffocated in the desert before the containers were reopened. Mohammad also said that he saw injured Taliban fighters being buried alive close to where the UN team has been digging.

Mohammad was released in February from the Shibergan prison along with 150 others under an amnesty that was granted in honor of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr.

Another site being investigated in northern Afghanistan is near the airport at Mazar-i-Sharif where captured Taliban fighters also had been gathered together by the Northern Alliance.

Almeida says many of those bodies were buried in a trench after lying on the surface or in shallow graves for several months. He said the reburial has complicated the investigation there.

Both of the sites in the north were in territory that was controlled by the ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum at the time the victims died.

Some of Dostum's own soldiers have told reporters that his troops fired on at least three containers that each contained about 150 Taliban prisoners late last year. But senior officials within Dostum's administration at Mazar-i-Sharif have denied that any massacres occurred. And the head of the Shibergan prison says only about 40 prisoners died while being transported there from Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif last year.

Almeida says the UN investigation will continue.

It was a Boston-based group of doctors called "Physicians for Human Rights" that initially reported the mass graves in the north. Members of that group also were included on the UN's forensic team.

Further to the south, Almeida says the UN team found evidence of summary executions at a mass grave near the town of Daouti in Bamiyan Province.

He said all 18 bodies at that grave are thought to have been ethnic Hazaras -- a minority Shiite Muslim group whose interpretation of the Koran was considered even more offensive to the Sunni Taliban than the views of non-Muslims.

Almeida said of the three autopsies conducted in Bamiyan Province, all three had died of gunshot wounds to the head and the back. He also said the hands of one of the men had been tied behind his back before he was shot, indicating a summary execution.