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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK
Massacre warning for Afghan city
Northern Alliance tank crewmen
The opposition are meeting strong Taleban resistance
By BBC News Online's Marcus George

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based human rights organisation, has called on the Afghan opposition not to take revenge on Taleban forces for atrocities committed over three years ago in the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Fears of an imminent ethnic bloodbath are mounting as the Northern Alliance steps up its offensive to recapture the city, which is now cut off from the Taleban-held capital, Kabul.

Taleban fighters taken prisoner by the Northern Alliance this year
The opposition is eager to show off its Taleban prisoners to western media

HRW's advocacy director, Tom Malinowski, wrote to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, calling on him to appeal to the alliance on the issue.

According to a HRW report, the Taleban's capture of the city in August 1998 marked "one of the single worst examples of the killings of civilians in Afghanistan's 20-year war".

Witnesses described the first day of the occupation of Mazar-e-Sharif as a "killing frenzy" as the Taleban "shot at anything that moved", killing hundreds of civilians.

The Taleban instigated a house-to-house search to round up male Hazaras, a Persian-speaking Shia Muslim minority, for summary execution, HRW says.

Within days, the city's new governor, Mullah Manon Niazi, reportedly made speeches in Mazar-e Sharif's mosques describing Hazaras as "infidels" and calling them to convert to the Sunni Muslim faith or be killed.

US planes above Afghanistan
US aircraft are bombing Taleban troop positions at Mazar-e-Sharif

Apart from the executions, men taken prisoner by the Taleban died of suffocation or heat exhaustion inside metal lorry containers.

The US-based rights organisation added that farmers from the Sunni Muslim Pashtun community and nomads were allowed to take land around Mazar-e-Sharif that had belonged to the communities persecuted by the Taleban.

The massacre was widely seen as an act of revenge for the execution of up to 3,000 Taleban members just 15 months earlier after they were captured during a failed attack on the city.

The captured Taleban were killed in the streets or at remote sites, some thrown down wells.

Coveted city

Mazar-e-Sharif is one of Afghanistan's main cities and occupies a strategic position less than 100 kilometres from the Uzbek border.

Home to a mix of Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tajiks and Pashtuns, the city enjoyed a period of calm in the 1990s under the rule of anti-Taleban warlord General Rashid Dostum.

Iran even had a mission in the anti-Taleban city and when the Taleban seized it they killed nine Iranian diplomats, almost sparking war with Tehran.

They city's electricity plant still functions, as do two plants producing fertiliser and a textile factory.

It is looking increasingly vulnerable to recapture, as US forces weaken the Taleban defences with bombing.

HRW notes that no Afghan commander from either the Taleban or the opposition has yet faced trial on war crimes charges.

"This has fed the cycle of impunity and encouraged further such abuses," says the organisation.

See also:

25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Profile: General Rashid Dostum
13 Dec 98 | South Asia
'All we want now is peace'
18 Sep 98 | Monitoring
'God's blessing was with me'
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