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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE GROUND WAR

Talibs Taken Prisoner Languish in the Dark

Afghanistan: Red Cross says it hasn't been able to gain access to--and monitor--detainees crowded into small cells deprived of light.

November 18, 2001|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KOTAL-I-KHAIRKHANA, Afghanistan — For five days now, Northern Alliance troops have held seven Taliban prisoners of war locked in a pitch-black room so small, they have to bend their legs when they lie down.

The prisoners, five Pakistanis and two Afghans, were clearly frightened Saturday as they peered out from the darkness of a cell no bigger than a walk-in closet. No one knows how many more like them are languishing in makeshift prisons across Afghanistan.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has protected the rights of jailed soldiers since 1915, is trying to persuade the new masters in Kabul, the Afghan capital, to reveal where all prisoners are locked up so that they can be registered and then regularly checked.

But Red Cross officials say senior Northern Alliance leaders insist that they are too busy to meet with them. And as reports mount of the summary execution and possible massacre of defeated Taliban troops, the victors--and U.S. allies--could be getting away with murder.

"If we register them, they are safe, or at least safer than they would be," said Alberto Cairo, a delegate of the Red Cross in the Afghan capital. "I hope we will get an agreement [on prison visits] soon."

Afghan Commanders Make Their Own Rules

But in Afghanistan, local commanders are powers unto themselves. There are no guarantees that any agreement with leaders in Kabul will filter down fast enough to soldiers who will decide the fate of the seven prisoners here, or three other Afghans locked away in a cold, dank shipping container just up the road.

The men guarding the Taliban prisoners in the back-room cell here on the northern outskirts of Kabul claimed that Red Cross officials had already visited and photographed the seven prisoners, but the detainees and the Red Cross said that wasn't true.

The prisoners sit and sleep in the same spots, on a dirt floor, and share a single blanket. Twice each day, they get the same meals their captors eat, and get a little light only for as long as it takes to finish eating.

"When we eat, they bring us a lantern," said Kaman Uddin, 20, a Taliban prisoner who said he was from the western city of Herat. "Otherwise, night and day are both the same: dark."

Uddin's hands trembled as he squatted in a line with the other prisoners in a dirt parking lot where the soldiers brought them to speak to a reporter. None of the five Pakistanis admitted to being in Afghanistan longer than 11 days.

Abed Mahmood, 23, claimed that he had started working as a doctor's assistant in a 400-bed Kabul hospital just a few days before the city fell to the Northern Alliance. Mahmood, a Pakistani, said he was arrested in a Kabul park where several Taliban troops were killed Tuesday with what appeared to be gunshots to the head at close range.

The soldiers guarding him insisted that all of the prisoners were arrested in front-line positions.

The prisoners are under the control of Aman Ullah, a Northern Alliance commander of some stature, who has yet to tell his men what they should do with the prisoners beyond feeding them and keeping them alive.

Red Cross workers have found at least 63 corpses in the capital and front-line areas since the Taliban fled Kabul in the early hours Tuesday, said Pierre-Andre Junod, who heads the Red Cross' Kabul delegation.

Numerous other bodies have been spotted in minefields where it is too dangerous to retrieve the dead. They include some of the victims of an antitank explosion Thursday that demolished a minibus, killing at least 18 people heading north from Kabul on the now heavily traveled main road, Junod said.

A week ago, after Northern Alliance forces seized the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, one of three commanders who led the assault, Haji Mohammed Mukhaqiq, boasted that his men had killed about 1,000 Taliban soldiers in a girls' school because they had refused to surrender.

Mukhaqiq, an ethnic Hazara, later claimed that villagers had killed many of the Taliban troops after the soldiers took them hostage. Mukhaqiq's conflicting accounts, and the history of tit-for-tat massacres by Hazaras and Pushtun-dominated Taliban, raised suspicions that his soldiers had committed a massacre. But the Northern Alliance has denied that.

To protect the neutrality essential to its work in war zones, the Red Cross has a policy against publicly criticizing either side of a conflict. But witnesses who have seen some of the bodies of Taliban fighters found in and around Kabul say they bore signs of execution at close range, and torture.

"If we have something to say, we will say it privately to the government," Junod said. "But you can also see the dead bodies, and you can make your own conclusions."

Prisoners of war have basic rights under international law. The Red Cross has been pressing Afghan combatants to respect the rules throughout the more than two decades this country has been at war.

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