Pentagon Denies Massacre Reports; Struggle for Kandahar Intensifies

The Pentagon today denied reports that opposition troops had massacred some 160 pro-Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan over the weekend.

“There have been reports of a massacre of 160 prisoners by opposition forces.” Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. “We have worked really hard to run this one to ground and reports are just not believable.”

The reports in question said forces loyal to Gul Agha, a former Mujahideen governor in Kandahar, had killed the Taliban fighters when they refused to surrender in the strategic town of Takteh Pol, which lies between Kandahar and Pakistan.

Clarke said a U.S. team in Takteh Pol assessed the situation and found that only a handful of Taliban prisoners had been taken.

“The opposition forces have taken a few prisoners,” Clarke said. “The reports that we have are that those prisoners are being treated properly.”

Clarke told reporters that it is important to stress the purpose of the military operation in Afghanistan.

“It is about self defense,” she said, referring to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that left almost 4,000 people dead in the United States.

Two Red Cross workers helping to cleanup after the prison riot at Qala-i-Jhangi fort near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif were shot by anti-Taliban prisoners who survived the bloody three-day uprising.

Northern Alliance commanders said they had quelled the uprising Tuesday, and Red Cross workers began removing as many as 600 bodies — mostly pro-Taliban prisoners — the following day.

The two wounded workers, one of whom was shot in the leg and the other in the hand, were taken to the military hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif, and the Red Cross pulled the rest of its workers out of the fort while Northern Alliance forces secured the area.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division have crossed from Uzbekistan into northern Afghanistan to help protect Americans working in dangerous areas, US military officials said on condition of anonymity.

Two units composed of around two dozen soldiers are reportedly stationed near the Mazar-e-Sharif airport and the Bagram airfield north of Kabul, where special forces are clearing away unexploded ammunition and repairing crater-filled runways.

The U.S. military hopes to start humanitarian aid flights into the Mazar-e-Sharif airport within eight days.

Air drops of large humanitarian containers were suspended after a package of wheat, blankets and cold weather equipment accidentally fell on a house in northern Afghanistan, killing one woman.

“Central Command for the time being has stopped these particular deliveries while they look into whether there is something wrong that they can and should address,” Clarke said.

Drops of thousands of small daily food rations, designed to flutter individually to the ground, will continue uninterrupted.

Conflicting Reports About Kandahar

U.S. warplanes continued to strike at positions around Kandahar, the last major city under Taliban control. Other bombing targets included tunnels and aqueducts that could be hiding members of the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Kandahar residents arriving at the Pakistani border said the Taliban militia seem intent on defending their spiritual capital.

“Every place you glance is occupied by the Taliban,” Kandahar resident Haji Mahmoud told the Associated Press. “There are lots of them. They’re in a standby position for war.”

In the heart of Kandahar, Taliban fighters hung a man for helping the U.S. military locate bombing targets, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported.

There were conflicting news media reports on Thursday about whether anti-Taliban forces had actually entered Kandahar. The Associated Press quoted a senior anti-Taliban official as saying his troops had entered the city, but Reuters quoted another anti-Taliban warlord as denying that report.

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said it was possible opposition forces are in the Kandahar province, which extends some 50 miles north of the city, but could not verify reports of troop movements toward the city.

The forces of former Kandahar governor Gul Agha expect to be in Kandahar in a few days, according to spokesman Khalid Pashtoon.

“Our biggest obstacle is [Mullah Mohammed Omar’s] Islamic decree to the Taliban to continue with jihad [holy war],” Pashtoon said. “This is why they are not surrendering.”

Yesterday, Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, called on Taliban fighters to hold on to the territory they still control and to continue fighting in the name of Islam, especially to protect their spiritual capital of Kandahar. Pashtoon was convinced Omar was still in Kandahar.

“He is definitely there, he wants to fight to the last drop of his blood,” Pashtoon said.

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