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A mullah in search of someone to surrender to

THE Taliban mullah had just walked across the front line to surrender ... but he could not find anyone to surrender to. So we bundled him and his retinue of defecting Taliban into the back of our rented mini-van and set off to find a local Northern Alliance commander.

Mullah Abdullah Hadi thought he was crossing the front line as part of the peaceful surrender of Kunduz, one of the Taliban's last two strongholds in Afghanistan, negotiated the night before.

Instead, he found himself crossing the front line in the Battle of Kunduz. As he got into the car, chaos broke out. Suddenly, everyone was scrambling for cover. Somebody started screaming that the Taliban in the hills opposite had fired a rocket at us.

Northern Alliance soldiers hurled themselves into the ditch or scrabbled their way onto moving pick-ups.

Mullah Hadi and his friends might be trying to surrender, but someone was still fighting. "Be quiet!" the driver screamed at me as he swerved onto the bridge, narrowly avoiding a fleeing soldier.

One of Mullah Hadi's retainers hung out of the open door as we raced down the road. A line of pick-ups loaded with Northern Alliance soldiers followed us. In a few minutes, the entire Northern Alliance front line had collapsed as the panicking soldiers took to the road and fled. Mullah Hadi had already had five rockets fired at him by Northern Alliance soldiers as he crossed the front line, he told us.

We had tried to reach the front line earlier in the day, but we had to turn back when Taliban shells landed within four metres of the car in front of us. When we finally got there, crowds of turbanned men with rifles and rocket launchers over their shoulders stood silhouetted against the evening sun.

Among them, we found streams of Taliban trying to surrender as the battle raged around them. Tank fire echoed from the hills, an American B52 circled overhead, and every so often came the apocalyptic sound of the American bombs that we felt in our chests and that made our ears sing.

The road to Kunduz was packed with Northern Alliance soldiers in Russian military fatigues, milling around in easy range of the Taliban who were still firing mortars. Surrendering Taliban tried to push through in pick-ups and Russian Kamaz trucks that were still smeared with mud so the American jets would mistake them for Afghan mud-houses, the Taliban's strategy to avoid the bombs.

Alliance soldiers pushed back the people trying to welcome a heavily-bearded Taliban defector. One of them demanded the defector's rocket-propelled-grenade launcher. He refused to hand it over, and the Alliance soldier tried to wrestle it out of his hands, screaming at him. An Afghan clutched at my sleeve. "We have to go, they will start shooting," he hissed at me. So we retreated - towards the Taliban front line.

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In the middle of a battle, we were retreating from "our" line towards the enemy's, for our own safety.

Another Taliban defector in a black turban had just arrived when a Northern Alliance soldier rushed up and swore at him. The Taliban defector said he was going to shoot the Northern Alliance soldier, so we got out of the way. That was when we found Mullah Hadi, striding with quiet dignity through the chaos. "The Taliban government is finished," he told us. "But I am not happy about surrendering to the Alliance. They have no discipline."

Plenty of Taliban were still fighting, including as many as 10,000 foreign volunteers, 1,000 of them said to be members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida.

The mullah complained bitterly about the American bombing, saying the bombs had killed innocent civilians. He said the Americans had bombed a power station and even the burnt-out wreck of a tank from an earlier war. A little way up the road a Northern Alliance tank blocked the way.

We finally found a warlord for our Taliban mullah to surrender to in a large, rambling house without electricity. It was night when we got there, and we followed the mullah up the stairs, apprehensive of what welcome he might receive. Northern Alliance soldiers fixed torches on us in the gloom.

At the top, Alliance soldiers sat around on the floor, their faces lit by a glowing hurricane lamp. They were eating iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. The commander, Nazir Ahmad, was at the front - but one of his deputies beckoned Mullah Hadi to join them and eat. By that simple action, our Mullah Hadi came under the protection of the warlords, and was safe. Without it, any Alliance soldier could have picked him up off the street and flung him in jail - or shot him down where he stood.

(Independent News Service)

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