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Bin Laden's men fight to bitter end

Terror chief's 'Afghan Arabs' prove toughest nuts to crack.

Terror chief's 'Afghan Arabs' prove toughest nuts to crack

WE saw them march out of town, laughing columns of men, a victorious army on its way to liberate the Taliban's last stronghold in the north. And we saw them return, pitiful little bands of broken men, some with legs blown away, others riddled with machine-gun fire.

The war in Afghanistan is not over yet. Northern Alliance soldiers were cut down as they tried to march on Kunduz, the last Taliban town holding out in the north. But it was not the true Afghan Taliban who led them into a trap.

It was the volunteers who came from abroad, from Arab countries, Pakistan and Chechnya to fight the jihad in Afghanistan, the so-called "Afghan Arabs," who are led by Osama bin Laden.

They drove in 38 Russian trucks, on a narrow road between two rows of houses where the Taliban soldiers stood on the roofs. They made no attempt to defend themselves, the Taliban commander in Kunduz was supposed to have defected and Kunduz and the whole of northern Afghanistan were there for the taking.

And then the Taliban soldiers on the roofs opened fire on them with guns and rockets.

"They were so close I could hear them speaking to each other," said Abdul Mawlood, a 24-year-old with the bones in his leg shattered by the machine-guns. "I could hear them speaking Urdu" - a Pakistani language.

He lay in the hospital, amid the rotting stench of old blood. The dark bloodstains were everywhere, and in the background you could hear the howling of a man just brought in after he drove over a landmine. "Allah," he cried, and the sound rose higher and higher into an inhuman yelp.

Mr Mawlood fell from the truck when they shot him, and crawled into the ditch where he hid. "I could see one of my comrades, lying wounded in the road. Some of the foreigners [volunteers] came up to him and shot him dead where he lay. They didn't see me," he said. He lay there bleeding until Norther n Alliance relief forces came and dragged him away from the slaughter.

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Three hundred soldiers drove into that village. Fifty of them died, according to a commander. Several were injured just by trucks desperately trying to reverse.

Similar stories are coming from all over Afghanistan. We heard of a village further north where the foreign volunteers, overwhelmed by Northern Alliance forces, waited until the Alliance troops were upon them and then killed themselves with grenades.

Like the pilots who flew the planes into the World Trade Centre, they are not afraid to die.

But the foreign volunteers are almost the only ones fighting now. Across the country, the Afghan Taliban are defecting or surrendering. After steadily losing the war in Afghanistan for five years, the Northern Alliance has suddenly swept the country, and, except for the foreigners, the once all-powerful Taliban are melting away like snow.

It is not hard to find out why. On a ridge next to an old graveyard, just outside Taloqan, we found Taliban soldiers in little pieces. Twisted pieces of metal littered the ground, the remains of five tanks destroyed by an American bomb.

Scattered around were strange little burned fragments, with the springy texture of cooked meat. It took a while to realise they were bits of the bodies of Taliban soldiers blown to pieces by the bombs.

"It was terrible when the planes came," said Sakhi Mohammed, an Afghan Talib soldier taken prisoner by the Northern Alliance. "There were hands flying in the air. Lots of my friends died. Sometimes they bombed the jeeps, and the bits of jeep were thrown hundreds of metres away. How do you find the bodies if jeeps are blown apart like that?"

The Taliban endured weeks of that bombing before they folded before the Northern Alliance's advance. But bin Laden's 'Afghan Arabs' are still fighting tooth and claw.

We found three of them in the prison. One had gone completely mad or else feigned madness in the hope he would be freed. Nobody knew where he was from but he certainly was not Afghan.

Saleh Jan, a volunteer from Pakistan, sat smiling disconcertingly in the corner. "I came to Afghanistan to fight for Islam," he said. "If they release me, I will go and kill the Northern Alliance and Americans again."

There was no pretence about him. And for a man who could yet face summary execution - stories of Northern Alliance soldiers killing foreign volunteers are pouring out - he was disarmingly calm, smiling in the corner where the sun crept into the cell.

He wore not only his beard, but also his hair long and unkempt, as some very devout Muslims do, and he had the slightly crazed air of a mystic, like some dervish of death.

A third foreign volunteer, Maqsood Ali, also from Pakistan, sat quietly at the other side of the room. He was pleading ignorance. But not Mr Jan. He knew all about the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington - most Afghan Taliban prisoners say they know nothing about them, some even seem not to have heard that they happened.

"What happened in New York was good," said Mr Jan, "America suddenly felt on itself what it has inflicted on the rest of the world."

And what of the fact that it was innocent civilians who died in New York and Washington? "Where were you with your concern for innocent civilians when Muslim civilians were dying in Palestine? Innocent civilians have been dying here in Afghanistan."

The Northern Alliance says it has Kunduz surrounded now. But 'Afghan Arabs' like Mr Jan are believed to be all over Afghanistan - more of them in the south where the al-Qa'ida training camps were - and bin Laden's dervishes of death say they will fight to the end.

(Independent News Service)

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