Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 December 2001
Issue No.564
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Rules of engagement

A Libyan initiative to save the families of "Arab Afghans" was ignored by the United States, increasing fears that thousands of pro- Taliban fighters will be massacred, reports Khaled Dawoud

Lone soldier: an Afghan police officer amid the ruins of a neighbourhood destroyed in the post-Soviet, pre-Taliban era

With the US airforce using its heaviest bombs to pound the suspected hideout of Al-Qa'eda leader, Osama Bin Laden, and his supporters in Tora Bora mountain in eastern Afghanistan, there are slim hopes that any of the estimated 1,000 Arab Afghan fighters remaining will emerge alive.

Already, several reports say that earlier US bombing of the same area injured Al- Qa'eda's second man, and leader of Egyptian Jihad, Ayman El-Zawahri. A report that came out late last week said that at least 10 other Al-Qa'eda commanders were killed in the same attack.

Hani El-Sebaie, an Egyptian militant based in London who claims to have contacts in Afghanistan, denied that El- Zawahri was either killed or wounded. But he confirmed that family members of America's second most wanted man were killed in the US raid on Tora Bora on 3 December. El-Sebaie said El-Zawahri's wife, Azza Nweira, and three of his children, were killed in the attack, and dubbed them "martyrs."

El-Sebaie also denied the report of the death of the 10 Al-Qa'eda commanders, claiming that the target hit by heavy US bombs last week housed families of the leaders of the group and other fighters. But he admitted, "With the ongoing war, it is very difficult, if not impossible to confirm or deny who is dead and who is alive."

El-Zawahri's family in Egypt stunned observers when they published a small advertisement in the daily Al-Ahram newspaper on Friday, "condoling the Muslim nation for the martyrdom of (El-Zawahri's) wife and children."

However, no similar advertisement was published by the wife's family. AZ's father, Anwar, said he still hoped his daughter was alive. He said the last time he saw her was in 1994, although he did know that she gave birth to a child almost three years ago. The child, Mohamed, El-Zawahri's only boy, was reportedly among those killed in the attack.

The reports on El-Zawahri's injury and the death of his family came as US forces were deployed on the ground in Kandahar and near Tora Bora, starting a difficult hunt for Bin Laden in the rugged mountain honeycombed by caves.

While some analysts believe Bin Laden will personally lead what may be his last battle, others did not rule out the possibility that he has fled, either to Pakistan or one of the former Soviet Republics. It remains a fact, however, that the massive US bombing campaign and the snowfall that has clogged the mountain passes will have made movement in or out of Afghanistan difficult, if not impossible, for Bin Laden.

After the brutal apparent killing of hundreds of pro-Taliban Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens at a prison castle in Mazar-i- Sharif nearly three weeks ago, there are serious fears that any captured fighters will face the same fate. Northern Alliance forces and US soldiers violently suppressed a prison revolt at the castle, and US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld has refused to consider an investigation into the massacre during which more than 600 people were slaughtered. The United Nations has also refused to play any role in providing protection for captured pro-Taliban fighters, claiming that it does not have the facilities to do so. As a result, the remaining Arab Afghans are likely to fight to the death, rather than risk capture.

Wahid Abdel-Meguid, an expert at Al- Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, believes the number of so-called "Arab Afghans" was exaggerated. He said that most experts estimate that between 20,000 to 25,000 young men from all over the Muslim world fought alongside the Taliban. Yet, because Bin Laden is a Saudi, and those who carried out the 11 September attacks came from Arab countries, Western media dubbed all those fighting with the Taliban as "Arab Afghans."

Abdel-Meguid pointed out that after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of its occupation of Afghanistan, young men from "Pakistan, Kashmir, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Tajikstan, Bosnia, Albania and a few Europeans headed to Afghanistan to form a new generation of fighters who believed that they were conducting an Islamic war." Abdel-Meguid said that the estimated number of Arabs among those fighters did not exceed 3,000.

Pakistan, which reportedly has the highest number of nationals fighting alongside the Taliban, has already established contacts with the new Northern Alliance government in Kabul to ensure that Pakistanis who surrender or are captured will be transferred to Afghanistan, rather than killed.

But except for a Libyan initiative aiming at saving the Arab Afghans, many Arab governments remained tightlipped about the fate of their nationals. Countries like Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and Tunisia, which have all been attacked in recent years by militants trained in Afghanistan, do not seem interested in discussing the issue. Some Gulf countries, however, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, said they would provide amnesty for their nationals captured in Afghanistan.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's son, Seif-Ul-Islam, said on Friday that Tripoli was working to evacuate those Arab fighters who supported Taliban. Ul-Islam, who visited India and Pakistan last week, voiced disgust at the Northern Alliance's role in the deaths of pro-Taliban fighters in Mazar-i-Sharif and said it was necessary to "rescue" Arab fighters from "torture."

"Some groups of the Northern Alliance committed heinous massacres in Mazar-i- Sharif, Kabul and other Afghan towns," he told reporters. "We see that this tragedy is going to be repeated in Kandahar. We know about the killing of scores of families of Arab Afghans and foreigners. We therefore think it is necessary to evacuate the fighters along with their families," he told reporters in New Delhi. He added that the Gaddafi International Foundation was in contact with the Pakistan government to provide the fighters with provisional shelter which may protect them from air strikes. He revealed that "we also made several contacts with Arab states to get amnesty for them (the fighters) and guarantees for their return."

Gaddafi himself has said that Arab fighters, mostly Islamic militants, should be sent home where they could "be judged and treated like other prisoners of war under UN supervision." And Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal told the Washington Post in an interview that Riyadh was prepared to take custody of any Saudis captured in Afghanistan and will punish those with criminal links to Al-Qa'eda.

"These are our sons, we'll take them," Faisal said.

US officials ignored the Libyan initiative, indicating that Washington is intent on punishing any pro-Taliban fighters, especially if they are Arabs like Bin Laden.

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