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Besieged Fighters for Taliban Flee Kunduz

Defeat: Shorn of beards, some try to blend with refugees. Civilians are terrified of being caught in a final battle.


TALOQAN, Afghanistan — In the besieged city of Kunduz, where thousands of desperate Taliban fighters have been holding out against U.S. bombing for more than a week, some are cutting off their long beards, abandoning their weapons and getting out of town.

Among the newly shaved are Qaraghafor and Mulloismatullo, both Taliban fighters in their 20s, who are headed west for their homes in Balkh province, according to a friend, Ghulum Nabi, 25.

Nabi, a shopkeeper, fled the northern Afghanistan city early Tuesday because of the U.S. bombing of Taliban positions.

"They were very anxious, afraid for their lives. They came to my shop and asked me to help them find a car," Nabi said as he trudged east toward Taloqan in a thin rain.

With transport scarce, his friends were afraid to be seen in the streets of Kunduz, knowing that they would be killed as traitors if they were caught.

"I put them in a car and sent them home," Nabi said. Six other fighters with them had also trimmed their beards and were on their way home.

A week ago, when Taloqan, about 20 miles from Kunduz, fell to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, every barbershop in town was crammed with men trimming the long beards they were forced to wear under the rules of the Taliban.

Now trimmed beards are a useful disguise for some Taliban in Kunduz.

Abdul Qahir, 45, a trader who fled Kunduz on Tuesday, still wore a thick black beard with handsome curls. He said he was no Taliban sympathizer. He just hadn't had a chance to trim his beard yet.

Qahir said many Afghan Taliban fighters were adopting the look of refugees.

"They're all shaving their beards and cutting their hair. They're changing their new clothes for old so that they look like refugees, and they're leaving," he said. "They're passing themselves off as simple people. If they can find a car, they're leaving the city."

But the Arab and Pakistani mercenaries fighting on the Taliban side are trapped and desperate, with no way of melting into the tide of refugees. The Northern Alliance has given defenders two deadlines to surrender or face annihilation, though both dates have passed.

In Kunduz, civilians terrified that a U.S. bomb will go astray are taking off, some carrying small cloth bundles, but many empty-handed. Others are afraid they will be stopped and killed as traitors by the foreign Taliban fighters if they try to flee, said Sakijon, 50, who also left Kunduz on Tuesday.

Taliban fighters were speeding about in pickups, racing between the city and their battle positions.

"They're very tough, very determined," said Qahir, a Pushtun, the dominant ethnic group from which the Taliban has drawn much of its support. "They say we'll fight, we'll struggle to the end."

He said the Arab fighters appeared in large numbers in Kunduz after Taloqan fell.

"They're strangers in our land. What are they doing here?" he said.

They had long hair and had to communicate in sign language when they bought things from the trader.

Six days ago a top Taliban commander in a city mosque issued an ominous warning to local people.

"He said, 'If anyone here kills one Taliban, we'll burn the whole town,' " recalled Nabi, the shopkeeper.

Residents fear there will be a ferocious battle for Kunduz. Mohammad Ibraham, 19, who left Tuesday, said people were convinced that the Taliban would force their way into houses and take civilians hostage in a desperate last stand.

In Kunduz, as in surrounding settlements, U.S. bombs have killed civilians, refugees from the city said. Their reports could not be verified.

Nabi said Monday he dug out the bodies of two civilians killed when a U.S. bomb hit their house. "At first we buried their bodies. And then we found different parts of their bodies--ears--and we buried them too, this morning," he said. "Civilians support the bombing. But of course people whose family were killed by bombs blame the Americans."

In Taloqan, a slogan from the Taliban days daubed on the wall of a military compound warns: "If anyone spies for Americans or infidels or cooperates with them, they will be punished with death." But the warning has lost its force, and someone has smeared it with mud.

Naim, 20, fought with the Taliban for two years, but now talks like a Northern Alliance sloganeer. "We just decided our country had been freed of Taliban, and we decided to go to the other side," he said.

"Their morale is very low. They're afraid of the U.S. bombing. They're surrounded, and they're forced to fight and die," he said.

Makhsoud, 45, helped arrange the surrender of 300 Afghan fighters from the Taliban three days ago. Many others want to defect, he said, but fear being caught and killed. Foreign fighters on the Taliban side four days ago executed about 470 Afghan Taliban who wanted to surrender, said Gen. Daoud Kahn, a Northern Alliance commander.

Having made it back to safety, Naim just wants to go home.

"We want to improve our lives," he said simply. "We just want the same sort of things that you do."

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