Hundreds of pro-Taliban Pakistani fighters appear to have been systematically massacred in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif after being callously abandoned by retreating Taliban fighters, sources suggested last night.
The Taliban soldiers fled from Mazar four days ago but failed to inform a contingent of up to 1,200 Pakistani jihadis that they were leaving. Opposition troops trapped the Pakistanis in a school on the outskirts of the city and then shot up to 200 of them, a commander confirmed yesterday.
"We gave them warnings to surrender," Mohammed Muhahiq, a spokesman for the opposition Shia militia, the Hizb-i-Wahdat, said. "They asked us to send representatives over several times, but unfortunately they shot them. Finally we gave the order to attack them. Some 200 of them [Pakistanis] have been killed."
It was not clear last night whether the Pakistani volunteers, many of whom had only just arrived in Afghanistan, were killed in battle or executed after surrendering. The Pakistanis, trapped in Sultan Reza school, continued to resist for at least 48 hours after Mazar fell, sources suggested.
"There are unconfirmed reports of incidents of violence and summary executions," Stephanie Bunker, the UN's spokeswoman in Islamabad, said last night.
Reports of a possible massacre by the Northern Alliance, who were last night closing in on Kabul, will alarm the international coalition, which fears further reprisals if opposition troops seize the Afghan capital. President Bush has asked the opposition to hold off from taking Kabul until a broad-based government is ready to assume power. But his strategy looks as if it will be swept away by events.
The UN confirmed that armed gangs in Mazar-i-Sharif looted UN and aid agency offices and raided food warehouses in the hours before and after the fall of the city last Friday. Northern Alliance troops had seized a 10-truck convoy belonging to Unicef which was carrying tents and water pumps, the UN added.
The troops also looted furniture, computers and radios in Unicef's office. Taliban fighters had already stolen all of Unicef's vehicles as they fled southwards to Pul-i-Khumri on the road to Kabul, the agency's spokesman, Chulho Huyan, said. "Soon after the fall of the city groups of armed people entered Unicef premises and removed almost every item found inside," he added.
The reports confirm the impression that as more cities fall to the Northern Alliance armed gangs are filling the power vacuum left by the departing Taliban. "So far it remains volatile with reports of looting, abduction of civilians, uncontrolled gunmen and street battles on going," Lindsey Davies, a World Food Programme spokeswoman, said.
Sources said the Taliban had frequently left "foreign" volunteers behind when staging tactical withdrawals. "There is a latent racism in Afghanistan, despite all this talk of the Taliban standing behind their Arab brothers," one aid worker said. "There were always bound to be massacres. It is not at all unlikely."
In the beleaguered city of Kabul a group of exhausted Pakistani tribesman who had spent several days on the frontline clambered into a bus yesterday and headed home. The group said they had entered the country 10 days ago from Pakistan's semi-autonomous Pashtun tribal areas.
"They were bombing constantly and we seemed unable to stop it," the group leader complained, before setting off. "We were told by the Taliban to leave and we are going back to our village in Bajaur," he added, referring to an area in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province from where thousands of tribesmen have crossed into Afghanistan in the last few weeks.
Carrying their assault rifles and small bags of belongings, the fighters, aged from 30 to 60, clambered on to a coach hired to drive them back home. Elsewhere in Kabul, pickup trucks camouflaged with brown mud raced about, ferrying Taliban fighters to and from the shrinking frontline to the north.
Other sources suggested that in Herat, which fell to opposition troops led by the former mojahedin commander Ismail Khan yesterday, large numbers of armed residents emerged on to the streets as the first opposition pick-ups arrived in the city. The Taliban used the same tactic of infiltrating fighters inside the city when they seized it in 1995.