Taliban Atrocities
Confidential UN report details mass killings of civilian villagers

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By Edward A. Gargan
Staff Correspondent

October 12, 2001

Islamabad, Pakistan -- Fighters and commanders of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia have committed systematic massacres in recent years while trying to consolidate control over northern and western Afghanistan, according to confidential United Nations documents made available to Newsday.

The reports, written by UN personnel in Afghanistan, say such mass killings were ordered or approved by the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. UN officials who investigated a series of massacres of at least 178 people in January in the Yakaolang district of north-central Afghanistan said they had found witnesses to radio conversations between Omar and the teams of Taliban troops conducting the killings.

At Yakaolang, as in other such massacres, the Taliban, ethnic Pashtuns of the Sunni sect of Islam, particularly targeted ethnic Hazaras, who belong to the Shiite sect.

"These are the same type of war crimes as were committed in Bosnia” and should be prosecuted in international courts, said a UN official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. UN staffers said they made the reports available out of frustration that the top levels of the UN structure have done too little to have the atrocities designated as war crimes.

In January, when the first accounts of the Yakaolang killings trickled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban vigorously denied them. But in April, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted to the Security Council that accounts of the killings "warrant a more thorough investigation.”

UN staffers in Afghanistan collected eyewitness accounts of the massacres, visited mass graves of their victims, and in July, wrote a detailed 55-page report that they said was sent to Annan's office and to that of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson.

Spokesmen for Annan and Robinson said yesterday the United Nations still aims to more fully investigate the Yakaolang killings, but has been stymied by the Taliban. "We've tried to get people in to investigate the massacres -- to do the forensic investigation and interview witnesses,” said Jose Diaz, a spokesman in Geneva for Robinson. But the Taliban has blocked those efforts, he said.

UN staffers in Afghanistan collected eyewitness accounts of each massacre, including names of many of those who conducted them and those killed. Their reporting also notes the roles played by "foreign militia,” -- Pakistanis and fighters with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization.

"There have been 15 massacres of civilians over the last four years,” said one of the UN officials. "These have been highly systematic and they all lead back to the Ministry of Defense or to Mullah Omar himself. If there is a massacre, it has been authorized by him or the ministry of defense. And the firing squads are presided over by the biggest commanders.”

The exhaustive, clinical report describes the massacres in Yakaolang, a district of Bamiyan province that straddles a key supply route to northern Afghanistan. Bamiyan is the province where Taliban zealots earlier this year destroyed two ancient Buddhas carved into a mountainside.

The Taliban briefly lost control of Yakaolang in December 2000, when an ethnic Hazara militia, the Hezbi Wahdat, seized the area. The atrocities occurred the following month, after the Taliban returned.

Based on interviews with several hundred people who survived or who witnessed the massacres, as well as preliminary forensic work on grave sites, the report was written to provide the basis for a prosecution of Taliban commanders and leaders for crimes against humanity. It describes victims being lined up, their hands tied behind their backs, shot and dumped in mass graves, of a young boy being skinned alive, of civilians being beaten to death, all during a two-week reign of terror by some of the Taliban's most senior commanders and Arab militants.

"In no way was Yakaolang an isolated, or locally organized event,” but rather a "a centrally organized operation,” the report said. Thus, "it seems clear that the Taliban central command in the Ministry of Defense in Kabul and the Office of the Amirul Momineen” -- the "Commander of the Faithful,” meaning Omar -- "would have been kept abreast of developments throughout the operation.”

The UN staffers said they had evidence of radio conversations between Omar, at his base in the southern city of Kandahar, and those committing the massacres. The staffers said other top Taliban officials also supervised the operation by radio. They identified them as the chief of army staff, Mullah Fazil, Intelligence Minister Qari Ahmadullah and Defense Minister Ubaidullah Akhund.

The targeting of the Shiite Hazaras in the Yakaolang killings was nothing new. Many within the Taliban consider adherents of Shia Islam to be apostates, and Taliban-Hazara fighting has been among the most vicious in Afghanistan's recent years of civil war.

In 1998, when the Taliban captured the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, they massacred hundreds of residents, perhaps more, "often shooting Hazaras in the street or in their houses,” according to a report soon after by the New York-based group, Human Rights Watch. That massacre was seen as reprisal for a 1997 massacre by Hazaras of an estimated 2,000 Taliban fighters who had surrendered in a battle at Mazar-i-Sharif.

In one of the 20 massacres in Yakaolang detailed by the report, "survivors of the firing squad ... overheard the Talib , inspecting the bodies after the firing, saying, ‘all the Hazara, Shia, non-believer infidels are dead,'” the UN account said.

One of the massacres occurred in Nayak, a village tucked into the Darra Ali Valley. "People of Yakaolang considered Darra Ali to be a safe haven, where civilians could hide during political or military turmoil,” the report said.

On Jan. 6, the report said, Taliban fighters in eight Toyota pickups entered the village at 10 a.m. Over the next five hours, "the Taliban search party rounded up all the males they could find. The conduct of the search operation belies any notion of a military purpose. Men were rounded up indiscriminately and those detained consisted exclusively of civilians.

"After completion of their search operation, the Taliban herded the detainees toward Nayak center. Taliban horsemen "beat the men with whips, sticks and rifle butts, to keep them moving down the road.” In the evening, "the detainees were unloaded from the truck and split into two groups. Taliban then shot them in firing squads.

The account of this massacre -- in which 37 men, including farmers, a baker, a carpenter and shopkeepers, were executed -- was substantiated by numerous eyewitnesses, the report said.

"When I got there,” said one UN investigator, bloody clothes, cartridges were still there. I saw the bodies. The bodies were in mass graves with their hands tied behind their backs.”

In villages throughout the district, Taliban execution squads rounded up male civilians, beat and tortured many of them, and executed them in batches of six, their arms tied behind them. In Bedmushkin village, the report describes how Taliban executioners "skinned from head to chest” a young man named Mahr Ali and dumped his body behind the former office of the relief organization, Oxfam.

It quoted eyewitnesses in many villages as describing Arab fighters carrying long knives used for slitting throats and skinning people.

In the report, 178 individuals are identified by name, age and occupation as having been executed during the rampage through Yakaolang district.

"The organized way in which the massacre took place, plus the length of time over which it took place, plus the fact that the killings took place at a time when the Taliban force was maintaining contact with its command, indicates that the higher level command of the Taliban armed forces sanctioned the massacre,” the report said.

"Our goal is to indict these people,” said a UN investigator. "There has to be accountability. These are crimes against humanity, pure and simple.”

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