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On Friday, Nov. 9, the Taliban commanders of Mazar-i-Sharif abandoned the city, handing the Northern Alliance its first victory of the ground war. But there was no room in the Taliban's high-powered pickup trucks for the 900 fighters they had brought across the country from Pakistan. In a pattern that was to be repeated in other besieged cities in the coming days, when Alliance troops entered, they found the streets of Mazar deserted except for pockets of foreign soldiers who had nowhere to run to. Red Cross officials say they picked up 131 bodies around the city Saturday morning.
At Sultan Raziya, where the Pakistanis had set up their garrison, the soldiers refused to surrender. Alliance troops met a lethal volley of automatic-weapons fire from every side of the two-story building. They called in American fighter-bombers--guided by spotters on the ground--which scored two direct hits on the front of the school Saturday afternoon. Windows were blown out a quarter of a mile away. Hundreds of Pakistanis died in the explosions.
The Pakistanis who had survived the air strike--bloodied, demoralized and realizing that their Taliban masters had abandoned them--debated whether to surrender. Eyewitnesses say that a crowd gathered outside the walls of the school compound, shouting at the Taliban soldiers to give themselves up. Others, mostly Shi'ite Muslims, demanded that Alliance troops revenge the Sunni Taliban takeover of the city three years before, when the Taliban marched some 6,000 people into the desert in groups of 50 or 60 and mowed them down with AK-47s.
Inside, the Pakistanis could hear the shouts of "Kill the tourists!" But they shouted back that they were coming out to be arrested. Alliance soldiers waited until more than 100 had emerged, eyewitnesses say, then opened fire. Most of the Taliban soldiers were cut down as they walked. A handful fought back, scaled the walls and escaped into the city. The Alliance troops gave chase, shooting them as they ran through the streets and pursuing them into nearby houses. The Taliban took several families hostage; eyewitnesses said an unknown number died in the cross fire.
As dawn broke on Sunday, Red Cross workers began picking up the first of 80 bodies in the streets and homes around Sultan Raziya. The Alliance commanders turned their attention back on the school, where up to 600 Pakistanis were still barricaded inside. Throughout the day, there were sporadic exchanges of gunfire. On Monday, the Alliance commanders decided to allow 12 local mullahs to try to persuade the Pakistanis to surrender. In the afternoon the group approached the school armed only with copies of the Koran. "Surrender, surrender, surrender, brother Muslims!" they shouted. "Follow the book of peace!" Suddenly, automatic gunfire erupted from the shattered windows. The mullahs fell where they stood, clutching their holy books. "Now we had to kill them all," says Atta's ground commander, Saeed Mohammed Zaki, 30, surveying the schoolyard battlefield, his turban wrapped across his nose and mouth.
Advancing under a hail of fire on Monday afternoon, Alliance troops scaled the walls and ran to within a few yards of the building. From there, they fired a barrage of grenades in through the windows. After a few hours of fierce fighting, Alliance soldiers soaked the outside walls of the school with gasoline and ignited it. "The fires burned all night," says a local resident. "I could see them from my house. We all shouted at the Pakistanis to surrender." Adds Zaki: "We were able to kill or injure most of them. I don't know why they kept fighting." Some of the Pakistanis did run out of the building and did lay their weapons on the ground to be taken prisoner. But others were shot the moment they stepped outside. Losing patience as Tuesday came with the school still uncaptured, Dostum and Atta ordered their men to storm the building at all costs. So Alliance forces made a final ferocious push. In the afternoon, the guns inside fell silent, and Alliance troops entered what was left of the smoldering school. But the resistance still was not finished; when Red Cross workers began carting away the bodies on Wednesday, three injured Pakistanis hiding in a ditch outside the building opened fire. Alliance soldiers patrolling the area swiftly dispatched them. In all, Atta's troops had taken 175 prisoners; Dostum's, 150. The Red Cross said it had recovered close to 400 bodies from the burned-out building. Workers ferried the corpses, dusted in ghostly white, into the desert to be buried in mass graves. Mohaqiq's force of ethnic Hazara Shi'ites, who had borne the brunt of the Taliban's murderous rule, would not specify how many captives they took or what had happened to them. But some 200 of the 900 Taliban fighters remained unaccounted for.