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RESPONSE TO TERROR | AMBUSH

4 Journalists Feared Dead in Ambush

Attack: A driver for two of the missing headed for Kabul says the Taliban ordered them out of the car and killed them.

November 20, 2001|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHULI ASTIKAM, Afghanistan — The road that bumps and lumbers up the rocky canyons above the Kabul River here is a treacherous stretch even in normal times.

But in the political vacuum that exists in Afghanistan, it may have proved fatal Monday to four foreign journalists.

The journalists, in a convoy attempting to reach the Afghan capital, Kabul, were ambushed in a remote area nominally under the control of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance by men believed to be Taliban stragglers.

The attack reflected the state of a country with no central authority, no laws, no recognized police force, and a seeming sense of denial about the residual support for the Taliban.

Ordered from their cars, the journalists were bludgeoned with stones and rifle butts and, according to several accounts, shot to death.

"After they fired, they told me to leave the area and don't take anymore foreigners to Kabul," Ashiqullah, the Afghan driver for two of the journalists, said of the gunmen. "They said, 'This is not the end of the Taliban. The Taliban is still in power and can do anything it wants.' "

The four journalists were identified as Maria Grazia Cutuli of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Julio Fuentes of the Spanish daily El Mundo, and Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, both of Reuters news agency.

Reuters reported that Burton, a TV cameraman from Australia, and Haidari, an Afghan photographer who had spent half his life as a refugee in Pakistan, were "missing and feared dead." Editor Ferruccio De Bortoli of Corriere della Sera said his paper was "hanging onto the last hope" for Cutuli. Italian Foreign Minister Renato Ruggiero said that, based on reports from the scene, it appeared that the journalists were dead.

Other journalists following in the eight-vehicle convoy, including a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, were alerted by the escaping drivers and were able to avoid the ambush that took place 200 yards ahead. Dozens of others traveling in the same direction were turned back.

No bodies had been recovered by late Monday, and local officials in Jalalabad, a provincial capital about 40 miles from the scene of the ambush, gave conflicting accounts about the fate of the journalists.

Haji Shershah, a local militia commander, said travelers reported seeing the bodies of four foreigners, three men and a woman, on the roadside. But Nangarhar province Gov. Haji Abdul Qadir said he believed they were still alive, based primarily on reports that the attackers had taken money from other travelers.

"These are culprits and thieves, not killers,' Qadir said. "I'm 70% sure the journalists are still alive."

Qadir said he was seeking permission from the Northern Alliance leadership in Kabul to take a fighting force into the area to recover the journalists.

Attempts by militias to reach the site of the shooting failed Monday night because control of the area is not clear. A contingent of 30 heavily armed fighters dispatched from Jalalabad stopped 10 miles short of the bridge where the shooting took place.

"We didn't have enough forces to get their bodies," said Shershah, who commanded the expedition. Like Qadir, he characterized the attackers as thieves, persisting in the political line that the Taliban is dead.

But Mohammed Alem Jana, a member of the same militia unit, said that was unlikely.

"This country was 95% controlled by the Taliban," Alem said. "Do you think we killed them all?"

The Northern Alliance has yet to extend its reach into the largely ethnic Pushtun areas south and east of Kabul.

The Pushtun belt along the Pakistani border is the most volatile of all the regions of Afghanistan. It is here that the support for the Taliban remains strongest. Saudi militant Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding in Pushtun land, possibly in the White Mountain area near Jalalabad.

Until Thursday, Jalalabad and the surrounding area was under Taliban control. It is now under the loose administration of three former commanders of the guerrilla war against Soviet troops in the 1980s.

Phuli Astikam, located near the town of Sarowbi, is named for a small bridge on the barren, sparsely populated route to Kabul. It is theoretically under the administration of the Northern Alliance, which controls Kabul.

Most of the foreign journalists reaching Kabul have until recently headed in from the north, through territory dominated by the Tajik minority and controlled by the Northern Alliance. Three foreign reporters--two French radio journalists and a German magazine reporter--were killed Nov. 11 in a Taliban attack in that area.

When the Taliban lost Jalalabad, it opened another, faster route to Kabul.

Over the weekend, dozens of foreign reporters traveled from Peshawar, Pakistan, through the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad and on to Kabul.

But the biggest rush was expected to be Monday, when many of the 200 journalists in Jalalabad hoped to make the trek.

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