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RESPONSE TO TERROR | IN THE BATTLE ZONE

3 Relief Workers Shot in Riot Aftermath

November 30, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QALA-I-JANGY, Afghanistan — Crenelated ramparts circle the rim of the fortress like icing piped on pastry. On the ground below, a concrete stairway stands pink and incongruous amid the rubble, its steps descending into the earth, a pastel passage to the underworld.

For three health workers helping the International Committee of the Red Cross collect bodies here in northern Afghanistan on Thursday, that's exactly what it turned out to be.

They thought it was safe. Two days earlier, the Northern Alliance had quelled an uprising by as many as 500 Taliban prisoners--many of them foreign fighters from countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The three local men were sent down the stairway to retrieve bodies lying in a series of underground jail rooms.

They were greeted by a volley of gunfire. Two were injured and managed to escape; the third remained inside. After more gunshots were heard from below, the man was presumed dead.

Northern Alliance officials at the fortress said they believe a single Taliban fighter remained alive, hiding out in the underground rooms. And the determination of the soldier to hold out alone, they said, proves that the alliance has had no choice but to battle with him and his comrades to the death.

"They are terrorists," Shahzada Khan, the director of the fortress and its underground prison, said Thursday. "They are like terrorists all around the world. They would not listen to us. They didn't want to negotiate."

Accounts of events during the three-day siege remain fragmentary and sometimes contradictory, but its spark was apparently the killing of CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann by a grenade-wielding Taliban prisoner.

After Spann was killed, British special forces called in U.S. airstrikes, which helped put down the rebellion. In its wake, calls are growing for an inquiry into the uprising, including the role of the United States and Britain.

On her way to London on Thursday, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, echoed Amnesty International's call for an investigation. Donald Anderson, Britain's Labor Party chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said the United Nations should conduct the investigation.

"I have no doubt many of the Arab prisoners and other outsiders would have chosen martyrdom, but the fact that there were such numbers . . . these are all matters that need to be investigated," Anderson said in a telephone interview.

Inside the fortress Thursday, the debris of a fierce battle was evident. Pools of blood stained the ground next to charred machine-gun tripods. Spent cartridges, artillery rounds and mortars littered the ground. Piles of rubble from a bombed ammunition depot smoked threateningly.

A rich smell of pine resin emanated from shattered trees along the fortress' central walkway, briefly overpowering the acrid smell of burning gunpowder and the stench of rotting horse carcasses.

Northern Alliance fighters concentrated on flushing out or killing the underground Taliban holdout. They removed the rear casings from a dozen rockets, attached short straw fuses and fired them one by one down the stairway and into other openings to the subterranean rooms. Between rockets, they fired AK-47 assault rifles into the smoke and darkness underground.

Northern Alliance officials say many of the approximately 500 prisoners who rebelled were foreign Taliban, some of whom are believed to have ties to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorism network.

They were among the last defenders of the city of Kunduz, which fell to the Northern Alliance on Sunday. The fighters bypassed the main Kunduz commander and drove west to surrender to Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who promised to treat them humanely.

According to prison officials, the first trouble with the inmates began Saturday night when a prisoner who had squirreled away a grenade blew himself up, killing two top Northern Alliance commanders as well.

The following morning, the Northern Alliance brought some of the prisoners up from the underground cells to search them for explosives and weapons and question them about their relationship to Bin Laden.

According to a Northern Alliance soldier who witnessed the event, a CIA agent--Spann--was present. At 10:30 a.m., a Taliban fighter threw himself at Spann, detonating a grenade and killing the American. A second agent then opened fire, killing as many as 20 of the prisoners, he said.

In the resulting confusion, he said, some of the prisoners managed to get into the ammunition depot and arm themselves, and the uprising was on.

Khan, the fortress director, said a full-scale battle was unavoidable.

"We didn't want to fight against them," he said. "But they chose to fight with us, and we had to defend ourselves."

Asked why Taliban soldiers who had peacefully surrendered would suddenly turn on their captors, Khan said, "Perhaps that was their plan all along."

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