Monday, November 26, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan Quickening the hunt for Osama bin Laden and top Taliban leaders, U.S. Marines landed today outside the southern city of Kandahar. The Taliban reportedly vowed anew to fight to the death to defend their last stronghold.

At the scene of a bloody prison uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif by captured fighters loyal to bin Laden, heavy explosions and gunfire rang out for a second day today. Holdouts barricaded themselves inside a tower of the mud-walled fortress and fired mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses said.

Five U.S. military men near the northern city were seriously hurt today by friendly fire when a U.S. airstrike went awry, the Pentagon said. The men were airlifted to Uzbekistan.

The men had called in for air support and the resulting fire struck near their position, said Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their injuries were listed as serious, Gen. Myers said.

In newly captured Kunduz, victorious northern alliance troops arriving in the northern city fought off ambushes by Taliban stragglers and shot and beat Taliban prisoners, leaving some wounded men to writhe in pain on the street under the gaze of curious crowds. Some alliance soldiers turned quickly to looting, hauling off stolen cars.

The deployment of Marines near Kandahar marks a perilous new phase of a conflict that until now had focused on U.S. airstrikes backing up the opposition northern alliance plus limited ground missions by several hundred American special forces fanned out in small units across Afghanistan.

At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to discuss in detail the purpose of moving Marines into Afghanistan, although he suggested they will be used to tighten the squeeze on Taliban and al-Qaida leaders by limiting their movements from the Kandahar area.

Mr. Rumsfeld said “hundreds, not thousands” of Marines would “establish, hold and protect” their forward operating base.

Kandahar, the Taliban’s home base and spiritual center, has come under fierce bombardment since the U.S.-led military campaign began Oct. 7, and the Taliban have vowed to fight to the death rather than abandon their last citadel.

They did so again today. Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdullah was quoted by the Afghan Islamic Press as saying supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was still in the city, in command of his troops, and “we have decided to fight against the American military until death.”

In the last three weeks, the Taliban have lost their grip on three-quarters of Afghanistan, plus the capital, Kabul. As the Marines moved in, the Taliban were said to be abandoning some border areas, claiming they wanted to protect civilians living there.

A Taliban official, Mullah Namatullah, said the militia had agreed to handover the border town of Spinboldak to two anti-Taliban tribal leaders in order to spare it from U.S. bombardment. But Abdullah, the Taliban spokesman, said the town remained under Taliban control, AIP said.

Loud explosions rocked the area around Kandahar overnight and early today, with bright flares illuminating the night sky, a witness in the city said. Tribal leaders said their fighters, backed by U.S. bombardment, had pushed to within five miles of the city.

Pakistani journalist Nasir Malik, who is in Kandahar, said the center of the city was quiet Monday afternoon, with truckloads of armed Taliban soldiers driving through the streets. He said the Taliban appeared to be in control of the city airport too.

Malik said there was no sign of local Taliban officials in their offices. However, most of the top Taliban leadership is believed to be holed up in and around Kandahar, including their supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The foreign minister of the northern alliance said he believed Omar and bin Laden were close together, but did not disclose his reasons for thinking so.

“The forces of the Taliban and the terrorist groups have been contained … they have nowhere to go,” Abdullah, who uses only one name, told a news conference in Kabul.

Ferried in by helicopter, the vanguard of Marines seized a secret desert airstrip within striking distance of Kandahar, their commander said. He said more than 1,000 of them would be on the ground within 48 hours.

“The Marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan,” Gen. James Mattis, commander of the attack task force, said from aboard the assault ship USS Peleliu. After securing the sandy airfield, troops set up landing lights so fixed-wing transport aircraft could land with more troops and supplies, he said.

In Kunduz, which fell Sunday after a two-week siege, northern alliance soldiers sought to consolidate their hold on the city and exact retribution from their foes.

In savage scenes repeated throughout the city, alliance fighters smashed one Afghan Taliban to the ground with rifle butts after he quietly protested being taken to a truck, then stomped his head. Corpses of three dead Taliban lay in the marketplace; townspeople reported they were first wounded in fighting, then executed by alliance troops.

The alliance reported scores of defenders killed after they claimed the city had already fallen.

It was foreign fighters who surrendered or were captured during the siege of Kunduz who staged yesterday’s uprising at a fortress-prison outside Mazar-e-Sharif. The prisoners about 300 Chechens, Pakistanis and Arabs seized weapons and turned on their guards, triggering fighting so fierce that U.S. airstrikes were called in to quell it.

The alliance said most of the prisoners were killed, but a hard core of holdouts was still battling alliance troops and some U.S. soldiers today. Alliance fighters said several dozen prisoners were firing rockets and mortars at northern alliance troops.

Before the fall of Kunduz, Pakistan had appealed for safety guarantees for any of its nationals who were among those captured. Foreign ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan avoided criticizing the United States for its role in putting down the insurrection, saying only that prisoners who surrender should be treated in accordance with international law.

Mr. Khan said Pakistan had asked the United Nations and the Red Cross to try to find out whether there were any Pakistanis among the dead in Mazar-e-Sharif.

By late afternoon, an aide to the local commander, Gen. Rashid Dostum, said only a few prisoners were still alive and fighting. He did not indicate there was any attempt to get them to surrender again.

“Those who are left over will be dead,” said Gen. Dostum’s political adviser Alim Razim. “None of them can escape.”

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