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Afghans Report Ethnic Massacre by Taliban

September 18, 1998|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Refugees fleeing an Afghan city recently conquered by the Taliban say that troops with the ultra-orthodox religious army slaughtered thousands of civilians when they took the town last month.

The refugees, who are arriving here each day on foot from the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, say Taliban fighters focused exclusively on an ethnic minority known as the Hazaras, picked out by their distinctive Mongolian features.

Many refugees say they fled a city littered with corpses, some of them machine-gunned, others with their throats cut, others blown to pieces by missiles and grenades.

"There were bodies in the streets, in the city and in the markets," said Mohammed Rasool, a 42-year-old Hazara shopkeeper who fled with his family and walked for a week to the Pakistani frontier. "All of them were civilians. The ones with weapons fled long ago."

The refugees' statements are the first concrete evidence of what happened when Taliban forces captured Mazar-i-Sharif on Aug. 8. The Taliban, which has been fighting a lengthy civil war against the country's other main ethnic groups, has sealed off the city and barred any independent observers.

Reports of a civilian massacre seem certain to inflame tensions with neighboring Iran, which has deployed more than 200,000 troops on the Afghan border since the Taliban admitted that its forces killed eight Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif last month. Iran shares historic links with the Hazaras, who, like the majority of Iranians, adhere to the Shiite school of Islam. The Taliban, like Afghanistan as a whole, is mostly Sunni Muslim.

An official with the United Nations confirmed this week that the organization has received several credible reports of the massacre of Hazara civilians in Mazar-i-Sharif. Rupert Colville, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Islamabad, Pakistan, said as many as 6,000 Hazaras may have been killed by the Taliban last month.

"What the refugees are saying is extremely consistent, and in our view it is very credible," Colville said in an interview. "On the first day there was a kind of frenzied killing spree of everybody and anybody that was on the street, including animals."

Amnesty International in London and Human Rights Watch in New York both have reported the killing of civilians in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Taliban officials said the only people they killed were soldiers.

"There were killings, but no civilians," Taliban representative Abdul Hakeem Mujahid said in an interview. "Only people fighting the Taliban were killed."

The reports, if verified, seem likely to further besmirch the reputation of the Taliban, already regarded as an international pariah for its record on human rights. The Taliban, which took control of most of Afghanistan two years ago, has imposed a harsh form of Islamic law that prohibits women from working, studying or walking the streets alone. Public executions and amputations are common, and even such activities as kite-flying and marble-playing are banned.

In more than a dozen interviews, refugees who recently arrived in Pakistan told remarkably similar tales about what happened when Taliban troops shot their way into the city.

Abbas, a 30-year-old mechanic who uses only one name, said he was working in his shop about 10 a.m. when 15 pickup trucks full of Taliban soldiers rumbled down his street. One of the Taliban fighters summoned the Hazara male elders of the Lachapan neighborhood to a nearby Shiite mosque. When about 30 men gathered in front of the mosque, the Taliban gunners opened fire, he said.

"I saw the old people get shot, and I ran," Abbas said, "After that, everybody was trying to escape."

The shooting went on for five hours, he said. As he darted down the alleys and back streets of Mazar-i-Sharif, Abbas said, he passed dozens of bodies of fellow Hazaras.

"The Taliban didn't touch the other people--the Uzbeks or the Tajiks," Abbas said, referring to two other Afghan minorities that live in Mazar-i-Sharif. "They only killed the Hazaras."

The Taliban, whose members are mainly ethnic Pushtuns, and the Hazaras have been battling one another since the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989.

In 1996, the Taliban took control of the Afghan capital, Kabul, while the Hazaras and other minorities held onto the northern territories around Mazar-i-Sharif. In May, a force of several hundred Taliban soldiers briefly took control of Mazar-i-Sharif but was nearly wiped out by an army of Hazaras.

Some of the Hazaras speculated that, when the Taliban soldiers entered Mazar-i-Sharif last month, they were seeking revenge. The refugees said that, on the first day, the Taliban soldiers went on a rampage of shooting, firing on any Hazara in sight. With the regular Hazara army already evacuated, that left only civilians, they said.

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