Another Taliban stronghold in chaos

Refugees flee to Northern Alliance territory as in-fighting begins between Taliban soldiers in Kunduz.

Published November 19, 2001 1:44AM (EST)

As wave after wave of American air strikes pounded the mountains above the town of Kunduz on Sunday, Northern Alliance fighters milled around the front line, waiting for something to do.

It had been six days since a Taliban ambush caused General Daoud Khans forces to retreat in a wild panic, effectively leaving the front at Bangi Pol, a rise overlooking the Bangi river. Since the Nov. 12 ambush, Khan has not made any real progress toward Kunduz, one of the last major towns in Taliban hands. Kunduz and nearby Khanabad are both surrounded by arid mountains, forming the border of a picturesque river valley.

The air strikes, by American B-52s and smaller fighter-bomber aircraft, lasted for several hours, and appeared to hit many different targets, from mountain positions to villages on the valley floor. Explosives dropped on a ridge from a nearly invisible bomber, raising clouds of debris that completely obscured the sun. Concussions from the blasts echoed off the high valley walls and caused small landslides miles from impact. In an odd slow motion effect, the hills seemed to boil away into dust as the bombs landed, the mushroom clouds rising hundreds of feet above the mountain ridges where suspected Taliban positions lay.

After one particularly intense air strike, several black dots appeared on the recently bombed ridge, and local fighters insisted that the dots were Taliban forces who had survived the attack. If so, it was a remarkable achievement given the intensity of the bombardment.

Just what is going on in Kunduz remains unclear. By Monday morning, local time, CNN was reporting that a band of Northern Alliance fighters led by Gen. Atiqullah Baryalai had surrounded Kunduz and were urging the Taliban to surrender. But the alliance fighters were said to be poorly armed and unable to mount a full-scale assault against the stronghold, and so the stalemate continued.

But other reports indicate that fighting had errupted between al-Qaida hard liners and Taliban forces looking to surrender. The Associated Press reported that Kunduz had become a "bloodbath, with hard-line Taliban choosing death over defeat, fearsome Arabs loyal to Osama bin Laden turning their guns on the frightened militia and U.S. jets raining death from the skies." The Times of London also reported that al-Qaida forces have begun to clash with their former Taliban allies. "Afghan Taliban fighters have been massacred by fundamentalist foreign forces in [Kunduz] and last night moderate [Taliban] commanders were reported to have offered to switch sides," the Times reported.

For nearly a week now, there has been a constant stream of refugees out of Taliban-controlled areas west of Bangi Pol. Many have been leaving the nearby town of Khanabad just across the front line, for the relative safety of Bangi just inside the Northern Alliance-held area. The refugees usually travel in family groups, carrying all their belongings on donkeys, a journey that takes at least three hours and is now made much more difficult by the fasting required by Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. Afghans fleeing the fighting pack brightly colored sleeping quilts, pots and pans, all of which are bundled up and loaded onto pack animals and then herded down rutted trails.

Still others are coming from as far away as Kunduz, a trip that takes roughly five hours, much of it passing directly through a war zone, a landscape that is dotted with unmarked mine fields. In Northern Afghanistan, a marked mine field is designated by a row of small stones spray painted red -- but its often difficult to know which side is the dangerous side.

People leaving villages near the front lines brought stories of abuse at the hands of Taliban forces, usually based in ethnic differences. One refugee, Abdul Ahat, 36, leaving Amirabad with 8 family members, said on Saturday, The Taliban told me that if I dont leave, they will kill me. The Taliban forces accused him of passing information to the Northern Alliance , Ahat says, because like many Northern Alliances fighters, he is a Tajik. Many Uzbek refugees leaving the town of Amirabad told similar stories. Ethnic Uzbeks, often associated with Abdul Rashid Dostom, the warlord who recently captured Mazar-I-Sharif, are ordered to leave with the Tajiks. Many Uzbeks work the fields surrounding the Bangi River, growing rice and drying it by the road.

As of Sunday, Kunduz remained one of the Taliban's last strongholds, but there were peace initiatives operating at several levels. Nekh Mohammad, 45, returning to Taloqan in Northern Alliance territory, said that two elders from Taloqan had traveled to Kunduz on Sunday to ask whether local Taliban forces there would agree to surrender, but that Imam Morat and Abdel Majid, the two messengers, had not yet returned with the answer. Monday morning CNN was reporting that Afghan tribal elders meeting in Peshawar, Pakistan said the Taliban's northern zone commander and the Konduz governor were willing to surrender to the United Nations, but no deal had been struck.

So victory, or a settlement between warring forces, remain elusive here. Late Sunday afternoon, a Northern Alliance commander maneuvered his Soviet-era tank to the rise over the Bangi River. He began a deafening barrage of shelling, but it didnt appear that he was aiming at anything at all.

By Phillip Robertson

Phillip Robertson is reporting from Iraq for Salon.

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