Dead Men Talking

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DARIO LOPEZ-MILLS/AP

Mir Wais Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan

Afghan commander Abdullah Lalai knew he faced a fight to the death as he waited outside a barricaded hospital ward. Inside were six al Qaeda fighters, armed with hand grenades and a pistol, whose seven weeks of defiance in the heart of Kandahar had become an embarrassment to the U.S. and anti-Taliban Afghan forces who controlled the city. But they had resisted every offer of surrender, and now it was left to Lalai and his American special forces comrades to resolve the standoff.

The holdouts had been part of a group of 18 admitted for treatment after being wounded during the U.S. bombardment late last year. Most had escaped as soon as they recovered. One had been tricked out of the ward in December, another had blown himself up during an escape bid in January, and a third had been handed over after losing consciousness due to the infection of his wound.

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Now, six remained. And the fact of their freedom amid the frenzied search by U.S. forces for pockets of al Qaeda and Taliban resistance had become something of a joke on the streets of Kandahar. Moreover, "the Arabs" as they had become known had begun to win growing, if quiet sympathy on the streets.

So, late on Jan. 28, the final showdown began. U.S. Special Forces arrived at Mir Wais hospital, bolstered by specially trained Afghan troops. Again the Arabs were offered the chance to surrender. "They would not do it, they said they would never surrender," says Dr. Fazal Rabi Muneeb, who acted as go-between.

The assault team blew a hole in a wall separating the al Qaeda ward from an adjacent wing, and moved in. But, according to mujahedin working with the special forces, the first onslaught was repulsed by grenades — some that detonated, others that did not.

For the second attempt, even the motley Afghan fighters donned U.S. helmets and body armor. "I went in first with a U.S. soldier," says Lalai. The ward was booby-trapped from top to bottom. From one room came a grenade. "I pointed to the American the room they were in," says Lalai. Together they burst in, he says, with him firing high and killing two al Qaeda in an instant. "I shot one in the head, and the other, near the bed, in the chest," he boasts. The U.S. soldier dived low, pouring automatic weapons fire under a bed where at least three more lay. The raid left flesh and skull fragments and a severed foot scattered around the ward.

The violent outcome was inevitable, judging from written statements they sent to TIME in response to written questions over the week preceding the showdown. Weak and sick from hunger and their wounds, these foot-soldiers of Osama bin Laden had lost none of their hatred.

They refused to specify their nationalities. "We are from Arab countries," they wrote. "That is enough."

Why had come to Afghanistan? "American cruelty is why we came here," one wrote. "In our countries they are punishing Muslims. The good example is like the Muslims of Palestine. The American government is supporting Israel and with the help of Israel they are making Muslims under their heel, very weak."

Asked why they had declined to surrender to the Red Cross or its Muslim equivalent, the Red Crescent society, one wrote, "We never want to surrender to these organizations that are under pressure by America." Later, he added: "We will never surrender to Americans. And the things that Allah has written for our future, that will happen, whether it is in the future or now. Enough!"

Another continued, "Our message for the Muslim world is that Muslims know best why infidels punish Muslims, and why they are so cruel."

In the days before the fatal assault, the al Qaeda men's answers to TIME's questions became more rabid, doomed sermons denouncing the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan and exhorting the Muslim faithful to jihad against the American "infidels."

Finally, there was a note of defiance directed at the U.S. "America wants many things and they can't do all the things their hearts want," read the last note received by TIME. "The things which Allah wants to do, that is what will happen. Al Qaeda is mujahid and Muslim, and you know that Muslims will be never finished."

Hours later, its author was dead.