300 killed as US helps quell revolt by alliance's prisoners
By Charles M. Sennott, Boston Globe Staff, 11/26/2001
MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan - Hundreds were killed yesterday when Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners staged a bloody revolt, taking control of one end of a sprawling 19th century fortress outside the city where they were being held by the Northern Alliance.
The rebellion was being put down late last night with the help of 40 US special forces, but only after a six-hour battle inside the fortress and a wave of precision airstrikes from US fighter jets killed an estimated 300 prisoners, US military and Northern Alliance officials said. An estimated 30 Northern Alliance soldiers also were killed in the battle, officials said.
US helicopters and fighter jets roared overhead and airstrikes could be heard from here in the predawn darkness today pounding the area of the fortress roughly 5 miles to the west.
Four Americans, possibly military advisers or covert military forces, were at the fortress when the fighting erupted yesterday. Special forces were dropped in by helicopter to quell the rebellion, which had overwhelmed the roughly 100 Northern Alliance soldiers.
A bearded man carrying a machine gun and a black ammunition pack and calling in coordinates for airstrikes identified himself as a US military adviser, according to a team of reporters for the German network ARD, which was inside the fortress when the fighting broke out.
In American-accented English, the man, who identified himself only as David, could be heard on the ARD footage, speaking on a satellite phone, saying: ''There's hundreds of dead here, at least. I don't know how many Americans were killed. I think one was killed. I'm not sure. I'm not sure. [pause] There were two at least, me and some other guys, and that's about it.''
In Washington, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Stoneking, a Defense Department spokesman, responding to reports that a US special forces soldier was missing and feared dead, said, ''Central command ... said no military personnel were injured in the revolt.''
That would not rule out the possibility that non-military US personnel - CIA operatives or contract employees, for example - were injured or killed during the uprising.
[A Time magazine correspondent reported from the scene that at least one American, whom he identified only as Mike and said belonged to US special operations forces, was missing and presumed dead. ABC and NBC said the man was believed to be a CIA operative, not a member of the military. Reuters reported that a CIA spokesman, Tom Crispell, said the spy agency declined to comment on whether any of its operatives or contractors had been injured or killed.]
The ''American military adviser'' on the scene also barked orders to Northern Alliance soldiers in the fortress in a mix of broken Uzbek and Dari and ordered the television crew not to film his face. Alliance soldiers referred to him as ''Daoud,'' which in Afghanistan corresponds to ''David.''
But there were several minutes of footage which clearly show him as a large, muscular man with a pocked face, a beard flecked with gray, and wearing a traditional Afghan tunic.
''We do not control the fort. We control one end. We control the north end of the fort. ... The south end is in their hands,'' he said, speaking by satellite phone to a command center and requesting that ''helicopters and ground troops'' be sent in.
More than 500 Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters from Kunduz, who had turned themselves in on Saturday, were imprisoned in the mud-brick fortress known as Qala Jangi, from which Northern Alliance General Abdurrashid Dostum has ruled since retaking this ancient Silk Road city from the Taliban this month.
According to eyewitness accounts, one of the prisoners had smuggled a grenade into the fortress and exploded it, triggering a scene of chaos and a lightning rebellion in which the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters overtook an estimated 30 of their Northern Alliance guards within minutes and seized their weapons. Those Northern Alliance soldiers are presumed dead, Northern Alliance officials said.
Once in control of AK-47 assault rifles and grenade launchers and what witnesses said appeared to be an artillery piece, the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters attacked the Northern Alliance forces inside the fortress.
Olivier Martin, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was at the fortress to assess the conditions of the prison and meet with Northern Alliance commanders about processing prisoners of war. He said that at around 11:30 a.m. local time ''suddenly shooting started.''
''We tried to hide in the basement. The prisoners had access to weaponry, even heavy weaponry. ... We escaped by jumping the fortress wall,'' Martin said.
Arnim Stauth, correspondent for ARD, said he was there with his crew preparing to tape interviews with the prisoners when ''all of a sudden there was a huge explosion, which we believe was the grenade. Then there was a lot of heavy gunfire that started at once.''
The Red Cross officials and television crew were pinned down inside the building for several hours before making a run across a roof and jumping down what they described as a 25-foot-high section wall and running for safety.
The television crew said that the ''American military adviser'' helped them get out and then returned, saying: ''We're afraid we have a man still in there. I have to go back.''
ARD's Stauth said: ''We were very happy to have that guy. He killed one of the Taliban with a pistol, then took his machine gun off him and kept fighting. ... I don't know if we would be alive if it were not for him.''
A six-hour battle raged between the prisoners in the southern end of the compound and the Northern Alliance troops stationed 150 yards away in the northern end, where Dostum's headquarters is situated, according to the Red Cross officials and the television crew.
Qala Jangi is a massive structure with 40-foot-high walls and a water-filled ditch on one side. For centuries, it has been the site of battles for the strategic prize of Mazar-e-Sharif in the north.
Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, had greeted these 500 prisoners when they surrendered Saturday and brought them to his fortress. Shortly after their arrival in Qala Jangi, one of the prisoners exploded a grenade that he had managed to get inside, injuring a British ITN correspondent and killing three Northern Alliance soldiers.
That the start of yesterday's siege began the same way is raising troubling questions within the Northern Alliance as to how it is processing prisoners, and whether Taliban defectors can be trusted.
General Mohammed Amin, who serves under Dostum, said: ''We are not afraid of this, and not worried about it. We were afraid when the Taliban had 90 percent of Afghanistan. Now we are in control. ... We could kill them all in 10 minutes, but that is not what we want. We want them to turn themselves in so we can build our country again. We've had enough of war.''
Amin brushed off any suggestion that the prisoners should have been better searched and disarmed and that security at the prison was insufficient. ''This means nothing, and we will have the fort under control again in an hour,'' he said.
On Saturday, shortly after Dostum had paraded his prisoners before the television cameras, he left his fortress for Kunduz, about 90 miles to the east. He took with him some 5,000 soldiers, and appears to have left his own headquarters undermanned. Yesterday, Dostum's forces arrived inside Kunduz, which is now the last Taliban redoubt in northern Afghanistan.
Robert Schlesinger of the Globe Staff contributed to this report from Washington.
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