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RESPONSE TO TERROR | TALIBAN UNDER SIEGE

Kunduz Cheers Rout of Taliban

Victory: Thousands throng the city center, gaping at corpses and celebrating the end of puritanical rule.

November 27, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — With a last, fierce firefight and a blare of car horns, the Taliban's main bastion in northern Afghanistan fell to the Northern Alliance on Monday, ending 10 days of siege and five years of puritanical rule.

With corpses still strewn about the city center, residents joyously thronged the streets, breaking into cheers and chants as alliance fighters sped through the city in armored vehicles and artillery trucks.

"God willing, this will be the last breath of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan," said Gen. Mohammed Daud, commander of the operation that took the city.

"The Taliban were bad people, evil people," said Aladad Shamoli, 35, one of thousands crowding the city's main traffic circle. "They burned our house. They killed our brothers, our relatives. Yesterday I was afraid to say such things, but today, the Northern Alliance is here and now I can.

"I'm not afraid anymore," he added. "They have disappeared. They are gone for good."

The capture of Kunduz is an important victory for the alliance, which now controls all of Afghanistan except for the area around the southern city of Kandahar.

Two pockets of resistance, however, remain in the north. The first is the village of Chahar Darreh, about six miles west of Kunduz, to which as many as 6,000 Taliban fighters retreated when they were pushed out of the city. The second is Qala-i-Jangy, a 19th century fortress, where hundreds of Taliban fighters overwhelmed their jailers on Sunday and continued the siege Monday.

In Kunduz, there was little sign of concern about the two standoffs, and the alliance victory appeared complete.

Thousands of Kunduz men milled about the center of town, gaping at the Taliban corpses and mobbing Western journalists who appeared shortly after the Taliban left. Posters of revered Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masoud, who was assassinated just before Sept. 11, decorated jeeps and walls throughout the center.

A truckload of Northern Alliance soldiers pulled up next to the police booth in the center of the circle, and one fighter began to give an impromptu comic speech:

"Take off your white caps," the soldier said, mimicking the Taliban's scolding rhetoric and referring to the white pillbox hats favored by austere Taliban instructors. "After today there will be punishment for those who wear them. Take them off. They are Taliban caps."

The crowd erupted in jolly laughter. It had only been a few hours since the Taliban pulled out, but already people were making light of the dark times.

Kunduz, a city of about 300,000, is a stronghold of ethnic Pushtuns, a group from which the Taliban draws significant support. Unlike most other regions of northern Afghanistan, Kunduz had consistently been in Taliban control since the student-led movement came to power. When other northern cities fell to the Northern Alliance earlier this month, many Taliban fighters retreated to Kunduz.

Some observers noted that most of those celebrating in the streets were ethnic Tajiks, not Pushtuns.

"There are very few Pushtuns here," said 22-year-old Nuraga Mohammed Hassam. "Most are afraid that people will harass them or inform on them to the Northern Alliance."

Kunduz residents said street battles had been intense for days as various contingents of the alliance entered the city to fight the Taliban, many of them foreign fighters from countries such as Pakistan.

Nasrullah Aman, 20, said gun battles began again early Monday morning, forcing his family to take refuge in the basement of their house. But the firefight ended by midmorning, and soon the radio confirmed the news: The Northern Alliance had taken the city.

Aman rushed into the street with his neighbors and cousins. "We were so happy," he said. "I found about 10 Northern Alliance fighters and brought them to my house and gave them tea, whatever they wanted."

Aman was only 15 when the Taliban seized Kunduz. He said he is looking forward to trimming his beard for the first time in his life.

"The Taliban told us: 'You can't cut your beard. You have to wear a cap on your head,' " Aman said. "If someone didn't do what they wanted, they would lash him in the public square."

Still, amid the jubilation, there were signs that the city was uneasy. Shops--including barbershops--remained closed. And there were no women on the streets, not even in the head-to-toe veils, or burkas, that the Taliban had mandated.

"This is just the first day since the Taliban left, and the conditions are not normal yet," Aman explained. "When the conditions get better, the women will come out. And tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, I will trim my beard."

His cousin, Mujgan Aman, could hear the sounds of jubilation from where she sat at her sewing machine, but she could not take part in the public celebration. Like the rest of the women in Kunduz, the 21-year-old seamstress remained confined within the mud brick walls of her family's house.

Before the Taliban seized control of Kunduz five years ago, Mujgan said, she was planning to become a doctor. But that dream was put on hold when the Taliban shut down all schools for girls. Under Taliban rule, Mujgan left the house only about once a month, swathed in a burka and accompanied by a male family member. And instead of doctoring, she learned sewing.

"By now I'm a pretty good seamstress," she said wryly.

She fears it is too late to resume her studies to become a doctor. But if girls' schools open in coming months, she says, she will try to pick up where she left off.

She giggled when a visitor asked how she plans to celebrate the Taliban's demise. "In a few days when the situation is better," she said, straining her imagination, "maybe I will walk out of the house and go to the bazaar on my own."

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