Update: American rescued from Taliban-held fort

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Taliban fighters near the town of Khanabad, Sunday Nov. 25, 2001

UPDATE: U.S. forces have successfully rescued one American trapped inside a fort by rebelling Taliban prisoners in Mazar-i-Sharif, Northern Afghanistan. TIME's Alex Perry, who is on the scene, reported the details by satellite phone Monday morning local time. The American was apparently injured although it's unknown how badly. There was no information on the fate of a second American, believed to have been affiliated with the CIA, who was reportedly killed inside the fort by the Taliban.

The Taliban still control the southwest corner of the fort, while the Northern Alliance has surrounded their position with tanks, cannon and heavy machine guns. The Taliban, meanwhile, have gained access to the armory within the fort and are returning fire with the weapons cached there.

Following the rescue operation, American and British forces pulled out of the area, while the Taliban and Northern Alliance continued the exchange of heavy weapons fire which had carried on throughout the night. Although American aircraft still circled overhead, air strikes against the Taliban-held area of the fort ceased last night, reports Perry. It was difficult to tell how long the Taliban would continue to hold out. "We're being told to get out of here," Perry said at the end of his dispatch.

How we got here

On Saturday, 800 Taliban soldiers surrendered to the forces of Gen. Rashid Dostum, a leading commander of the Northern Alliance. But on Sunday, the prisoners decided to rebel, grabbing weapons from an armory at the local fort. At least two Americans were trapped in the fort when it happened and at least one is dead. American and British forces have now joined in trying to quell the attack. Perry is on the scene and provided these details via satellite phone to TIME Newsdesk editor John Flowers as the fighting raged.

How far are you from the fighting now?
200 yards

These are Taliban troops that surrendered yesterday from Kunduz?
Yeah. That's right. The drove over toward Mazar, laid down their weapons and were taken by Dostum's people. They were taken in trucks to Kalai Jangi on the west of Mazar-i-Sharif.

How many are involved in this fight right now?
800 [all]

How many American troops are fighting?
There's British and American. They're fighting together. There's a hand-full of them. I would say 12. They came in two jeeps.

12 Americans and British total?
Yes. There's British SAS and American Special Forces. The British are in plain clothes, the Americans are in uniform.

They're not fighting all 800 of these men are they?
Yeah. They are. With the Northern Alliance.

So this is 12 alongside the Northern Alliance?
But the Americans are running the show.

What do you mean by "running the show?"
Well, the Americans and the British are coordinating air strikes from their positions inside the fort on another part of the fort. And they're also directing the commanders inside when to tell their men to attack.

Are they exchanging fire as well?
Yeah, they are. They are. [gunfire] Jesus. Some guy's just letting off a gun for no reason. Part of the American forces and the British forces are coordinating air strikes. There's a group of six who are coordinating the air strikes. Those are the guys I was with. And then there are another six or seven who are fighting the Taliban on the southwest side of the fort. The Taliban are holed off in a pocket on the southwest side. The bomb spotters are on the southeast side, on the roof of a two-story building.

The reason they're here is that earlier when the Taliban grabbed some guns and started fighting, there were two Americans inside the fort: one of whom was disarmed and killed — he was called Mike — and another one was also in trouble; he was out of ammunition, he had managed to sort of hold off the Taliban with his pistol but he was out of ammunition when the main body of American and British people arrived. There's no word on his fate yet. But the Americans were mounting a rescue operation.

And this is all happening inside the fort?
Yeah, it's all inside the fort

Explain how this transpired. They were brought in pickup trucks and nobody searched for guns that might have not been in the open on their body. Then last night one of them pulled out this grenade, detonated it and killed himself and commanders. A British journalist [from ITN] was slightly injured in that explosion as well.

Did they decide to search them after that?
I'm not sure. I don't know about that. And then this morning some more journalists came. There was a guy from London and a woman. They were interviewing Taliban prisoners when the Taliban suddenly just pounced on them. They beat the British guy quite badly, but he was rescued and taken out of the fort. But that's when the Taliban grabbed guns off the Northern Alliance, overpowered them, killed at least twenty and the Northern Alliance lost control of the fort and had to withdraw.

Do you know what set them off?
Actually I think it was probably the British journalist. It's merely the sight of a Western face. They're here to fight a jihad; they see a Western face; they assume that's who they've come to get.

Would being interviewed by a woman also have anything to do with it?
No. She was outside.

This happened when they talked to the British journalist?
Yeah. That's right.

Now is he OK? You said they beat him up pretty badly.
We passed him in a taxi. [gunfire again] He was kind of sitting up. He looked pretty shocked. I'm going to see him a bit later. I think he's got sort of flesh wounds. I don't know if he's got any broken bones. I could tell he was beaten quite badly.

So the shock of seeing his face, they rose up, they overcame their captors and took the gun from the Northern Alliance.
That's right. The NA lost control.

So those two Americans. They happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Absolutely. There were also some Red Cross workers in there. They told me that an American broke into their meeting, said they had to get out of here, out of the fort, because the situation was out of control.

And then they got out?
Yeah. They jumped over the wall.

Now have there been any other injuries as far as the alliance. One confirmed death and one possible?
Among the Northern Alliance, there were at least twenty dead in the initial attack, when the Taliban overpowered their alliance guards. I've heard there's probably 300 or 400 Taliban [dead] now. The mission by the Americans and Northern alliance is to kill every single one of them now.

These are among the thousand that surrendered yesterday, correct?
Yeah 800. They're all here. There's wild rumors that this must have been a plan, in fact, to surrender and then try and take the fort from the inside. That's NA speculation.

Now have they completely taken over the fort or is the battle happening inside the walls the fort?
This is happening inside the fort. They never took the entire fort.

How big is this fort?
It's about half a kilometer long and half a kilometer — it's half a kilometer square. It's pretty big. Ooooohhhh, big explosion.

Are these mainly automatic and semiautomatic rifle fire, or is there anything heavier?
No, there are two tanks inside, two NA tanks that are being used. And the Americans have made nine air strikes so far. It's an incredible thing to watch. You can see the missiles coming in.

So you're 200 hundred yards away from these missiles striking down.
When I was with the Special Forces I think I was about 50 yards.

Right now you're 200 yards away from the Taliban or where the fighting is?
From the fighting. We're outside the fort. Right outside the city walls.

So this revolt and is being staged entirely within the confines of the fort and as far as Dostum and the rest of the NA know has nothing to do with taking over Kunduz?
Nothing to do with any of that. I think that the Taliban are pretty much convinced that they're going to get killed. Dostum has a fairly fearsome reputation. He's run over his prisoners with tanks before.

During this engagement or back in the late '90s?
I think it was '96-97 he was doing that. He's given them the assurance that they'll be safe but they're unlikely to trust him. If they get any opportunity to fight I think some of them are going to take it. There are supposed to be some Arabs and Chechens and some al-Qaeda operatives in there too.

Are most of these Afghans?
Yeah. I think they're mostly Afghans. But no one knows to be really honest. The prisoners aren't saying. They'll say that they are all Afghans so that they're treated a little bit better than if they said they were Pakistani or Saudi or something.

Now is the plan just to go in and sweep them out?
Yeah. The American mission is two-old. It's to wipe them out. And it's also to get — they've got one last [American] in there they're trying to get out. As far as I could hear, they were still alive when I was there. They were organized —

How long ago was that?
Half an hour ago. They were trying to organize air strikes and cover fire so that he could make a run for it.

I'm still hearing the occasional shot. Is it dying down now or is it still going on?
No, no. It's still going on. It's not as fierce as it was. Earlier we were hearing a lot of AK-47 fire and a lot of M-4 fire, the American Special Forces rifle. So there was probably some hand to hand combat, but that's not happening at the moment. But there's still shots and explosions — There's another one. A lot of tracer fire [as tracer fire goes overhead]

What could have gone wrong?
Well, as much as I hate to say it, letting journalists in among Taliban. He [The British ITN journalist] was surrounded by Taliban. When I've been talking to them, I've been keeping at least three or four meters distance and the Northern Alliance with me have been extremely nervous about letting me get close. They say that the Taliban are likely to try and kill me.

So there were none or few NA guards?
There were a few Northern Alliance guards and they were the only ones that had the weapons, but by simple sheer force of numbers the Taliban could overwhelm them. And then we saw a lot of Northern Alliance soldiers fleeing, some of them dropped their guns. I should also say that there are two Reuters journalists trapped inside there.

Any others trapped?
Maybe some Northern Alliance people as well. Well, almost certainly. It's gone quiet now. Suddenly. But the trouble was that the Taliban had gotten themselves into a position in the fort where they had access to the armory.

Were they kept close to the armory?
I don't know where they were kept. I think they were kept in the basement. Then they stormed out of the basement and stormed the southwest part of the fort where there were six or seven jeeps full of ammunition. That was, in fact, what the Americans were trying to hit. To destroy their supplies [and] provide one almighty explosion that would kill a lot of them.

The NA don't keep their weapons under lock and key?
No, they're incredibly casual with their weapons. They just lay them against the wall, lie them on the ground. They're always on their shoulder or just knocking against the back of a chair. When you leave in the morning, you put your shoes on, put your hat on and get your gun.

We keep hearing that if the Taliban surrender, the NA would be glad to have them on their side. Do you think that's going to change now?
Well, this group particularly has no chance of survival. They are going to get wiped out. If the Americans don't do it, then the Alliance are going to execute them. We saw some Taliban dead today. There were some who had managed to break out of the fort and they'd been shot between the eyes. As for the grand plan, it's certainly going to undermine it, but in some sense it's the only option if Afghanistan is going to have any chance at peace.

If push comes to shove
Right. But you've got to say that this isn't the most auspicious start for that push for peace.

What's going on now?
There's great clouds of smoke rising from the fort, from bombing and from fires burning. The fort itself is of mud walls. The walls are about 20 meters high, but you can scale the side. [more gun shots] I wish that guy would stop doing that.

Is some guy just shooting his rifle off next to you?
It's a local farmer. He occasionally just fires his gun into the fort for no apparent reason.

Is there a town inside the fort?
There is a little town here, outside the fort. The civilians were evacuated. And we're sort of just sitting in a ditch now with a bunch of Northern Alliance guys taking cover.

That sounds good
We've got tracers going over our head. We're going to have to go get a taxi because they stop running at night.