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Saturday, November 28, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ethnic Hatred Led To Massacre By Taliban In August -- As Many As 5, 000 Civilians Murdered

The Washington Post

QUETTA, Pakistan - Hardly anyone in the dusty city of Mazar-e Sharif on the northern plains of Afghanistan was prepared for what happened when Taliban militiamen took control with a vengeance on their third assault on the city.

On Aug. 8 and the days that followed, radical Islamic Taliban militiamen and their allies - including militant Muslims from neighboring Pakistan - methodically executed between 2,000 and 5,000 civilians in one of the deadliest mass killings of civilians in two decades of warfare in Afghanistan, according to interviews with witnesses who later fled to Pakistan and reports by international human-rights investigators.

Gunned down, throats slit

Taliban militiamen searched house to house for males of fighting age who belonged to the Hazara ethnic minority. Hazaras were gunned down in front of their families or had their throats slit in the same way Muslims slaughter goats for holiday feasts.

Others, thrown into the city's overcrowded jail, were executed by firing squads or crammed into closed tractor-trailers, where they sweltered all day in the summer sun until most perished from suffocation or heat stroke. In the evenings, the heavy trucks hauled the bodies to the nearby desert and dumped them in heaps like trash, according to the reports.

Sketchy reports of the slaughter were circulated at the time, but the full extent and the systematic character of the mass murders have only become known as human-rights investigators have interviewed survivors who fled to Pakistan and elsewhere.

The killings illustrated how the Afghan civil war - which began in 1978 to overturn communist rule, raged during a 10-year Soviet occupation and eventually settled into factional fighting - has in the past two years turned toward ethnic conflict fed by tribal hatreds and blood revenge. Although the Taliban fought its way to dominance under a unifying banner of Islam, in ethnic terms its rule represents a return to the pre-communist days of rule by Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.

In taking over Mazar-e Sharif, the Taliban added a sectarian twist. The Hazara group singled out for slaughter is predominantly Shiite Muslim; the Taliban is a Sunni Muslim movement. In addition, the Taliban's attack on Mazar-e Sharif claimed the lives of nine Iranians, provoking Shiite-dominated Iran to rattle a big Persian sword on the border, mobilizing tens of thousands of elite troops for military exercises that stretched over an entire month.

William Maley, an Australian specialist on Afghanistan, said the Mazar-e Sharif killing was "striking in its viciousness" even by Afghan standards. "What we saw in August was not civilians caught in the crossfire between combatants but an orgy of killing driven by racial and religious prejudice," he said. "Afghanistan is teetering on the edge of major ethnic conflict and perhaps even a genocide."

Until the shooting started that Saturday morning in August, few residents of Mazar-e Sharif had any warning that most of the forces defending the city had slipped away overnight or had defected, leaving the city's gates wide open to the Taliban.

Shock troops arriving in pickups and cars fired automatic weapons at everyone in sight, regardless of ethnicity, in an apparent effort to terrorize a rebellious population into submission, witnesses said.

"It didn't matter whether they were small children, women, men or old men. They were just shooting at people," said a Hazara woman now living in Quetta, a border city in Pakistan where thousands of other refugees from Mazar-e Sharif have made their way.

After a few hours, the shooting subsided, but for at least three days, the bodies lay where they fell on the orders of the Taliban commander who took charge of the city, witnesses said. It was not until the bodies began to rot and stink in the dry summer heat, threatening disease, that the commander, Manon Niazi, let the dead be buried.

The Taliban have denounced a United Nations report of a slaughter as "vast propaganda," maintaining that its forces had killed only combatants, confiscated firearms from civilians and temporarily evacuated some residents.

But a former Pakistani intelligence official who visited the city afterward said that large-scale killing did occur - after quick trials.

"Most of the group executions were carried out by the firing squads after summary Islamic courts found those people guilty of treason," the former intelligence official said. "The treatment meted out . . . was clearly defined in Islamic laws."

Refugees reported the Taliban were accompanied by Pakistani fighters, identifiable by their language, dress and the flag of a Muslim fundamentalist Pakistani party aligned with the Taliban.

In responding to the U.N. report, the Taliban also cited the summary executions in May 1997 of an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Taliban prisoners in the Mazar-e Sharif area. Human-rights investigators have concluded that those killings motivated the militia to take revenge.

Hazaras, however, were not responsible for the killings. Although they started an uprising soon after the Taliban marched into the city in May 1997, a militia dominated by ethnic Uzbeks quickly took control and rounded up the Taliban prisoners.

An old blood feud

Rather than avenging the May 1997 killings, the Taliban instead appears to have massacred the Hazaras in August because of religious differences and an old blood feud.

Hazaras who survived the onslaught were pressured by Niazi to adopt Sunni Muslim rituals, emigrate to Shiite-dominated Iran, pay a special tax as non-Muslims or face death, witnesses say.

In addition, the tribal code of the Pashtuns who make up the bulk of the Taliban binds men to avenge killings. The Pashtuns and Hazaras have hated each other at least since the late 1800s, when a Pashtun ruler conducted a pogrom against Hazaras and confiscated their farmlands, handing them to fellow Pashtuns.

Despite their desperate circumstances, some refugees talked of revenge. A doctor who fled from south of Mazar-e Sharif, for instance, quoted a Hazara proverb about a defeated people rising to fight back.

"When the glass is broken, it is getting sharper," he said. "We are the broken glasses."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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