These Guys Will Kill Anybody
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 5, 2002
Detained Warlord's Gunmen Pursue Western Journalists
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ZURMAT, Afghanistan, March 4 -- War has returned with a vengeance to the mountains of Afghanistan. It was visible today in explosions near and far, in the contagious anxiety of American soldiers, and in the smoldering hatred of Afghan gunmen in this sad village of mud homes beneath the comet tails of circling B-52 bombers.
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Two such gunmen sat on the earthen wall here this afternoon, cursing Americans. U.S. soldiers had recently detained their patron, a minor local warlord, apparently on suspicion of supporting Taliban or al Qaeda. Within earshot of an interpreter, they plotted in Pashto to kidnap a knot of Western journalists standing before them.
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"These [expletives] put our boss in jail. Why shouldn't we keep them as hostages?" one of the men was heard to say.
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"What are you waiting for?" the other answered. "Are you waiting for instructions?"
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Retreating quickly from Zurmat by convoy, the journalists were first pursued by gunmen and then approached on the road by a man who appeared to throw a grenade at one of the vehicles. An explosion seriously wounded a Canadian journalist, who was later evacuated from a U.S. military outpost. Her colleagues remained stranded overnight outside the base, as American forces hunkered down inside.
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"There's a lot of bad guys around here," warned one Special Forces soldier, who gave his name only as Mike. "These guys will kill anybody. If you're an American, they'll kill you."
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The intensity of the fighting was clear from Zurmat, the closest accessible village to Shahikot, a remote hamlet where al Qaeda forces had massed before the start of the offensive. Pounding by U.S. bombers has been so unremitting that the peaks of some mountains have turned black. The snow on the tops of others has melted from the heat of thunderous explosions.
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The U.S.-led attack has not been welcomed by residents here. None professed knowledge about Taliban or al Qaeda members in the area.
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"They are so unhappy, they are so sad," said Mohammed Shafiq, 25, a teacher. "Everybody is crying. No one can sleep during the bombing. People cannot go to the bazaar. People cannot go outside."
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Taj Mohammed Wardak, the governor of Paktia province, where Zurmat is located, attributed the ferocity of al Qaeda resistance to the possible presence of its senior leaders, including Osama bin Laden. "I have heard that he's there, but it's not confirmed," he said.
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"When they're fighting really desperately, that means there are top people," added Mohammed Isshaq, the security chief for Gardez.
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While the airstrikes took their toll, some Afghan commanders grew frustrated that they had not been turned loose on al Qaeda. Bacha Khan, a controversial warlord based near here, said U.S. military commanders want the bombing to soften up the enemy first.
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"We're waiting," said Khan, whose brother heads one of three detachments fighting at the direction of the U.S. force. "The Americans have told us to wait for the total weakness of al Qaeda."
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The detention by U.S. forces of an Afghan commander from Zurmat, a warlord named Naim Farooqi, seemed part of a difficult winnowing process as the Americans try to divine friend from foe in unknown territory.
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"There's a lot of [stuff] going on around here that you guys don't know anything about," said Mike, the Special Forces soldier. "These guys are getting snatched and they're [angry]. They're really bad guys."
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The explosive thrown at the journalists' convoy was one of two times that a small group of reporters and photographers came under attack today. The journalists -- from The Washington Post, Newsweek, Agence France-Presse and the Toronto Star -- were driving from Zurmat to the provincial capital, Gardez, when the first attack occurred, wounding the Star correspondent, Kathleen Kenna.
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"It was like the car exploded from the inside," said Bernard Weil, a Star photographer who was also in the vehicle. "Then I heard Kathleen say, 'I've been hit, I've been hit.' "
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Kenna's husband, Hadi Dadashian, was traveling with her. "He just came out of the car and said, 'My wife is dying, my wife is dying,' " said Stephen Coates, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse. Coates doubled back to aid Kenna while an Afghan scarf was tied around her wound to stop the bleeding. Her right thigh and buttock were shredded by shrapnel.
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Kenna was raced to Gardez Civil Hospital, a dank, ill-equipped clinic where medics dressed her wound. After her breathing became labored, her colleagues solicited help at a U.S. base on the outskirts of the city, where Special Forces soldiers busy with casualties of their own nonetheless rushed to help and quickly evacuated her by plane.
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"We've had a lot of casualties," one U.S. soldier said at the base, where the American troops appeared particularly on edge tonight. "It's not safe here," another urged. "Get the heck out."
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Leaving the base, now with Afghan security guards, the journalists came under shelling on the road into Gardez. Mortars thudded just ahead of the vehicles as they approached a checkpoint. Tracer fire burned through the darkness, followed by explosions and the sound of automatic weapons fire.
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Afghans and journalists bounded from the vehicles and jumped into ditches and behind walls. The abandoned cars, their headlights bright, continued to be a tempting target, and the agitated security guards shouted: "Turn off the lights! Turn off the lights!"
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The drivers rushed back, their heads low, and extinguished the lights. After a few minutes, when calm returned, everyone piled back into their vehicles and sped back to the American base, headlights left off through the pitch-black night.
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The Special Forces soldiers came out again and quickly decided that the attack had been meant for their base. They offered to send the journalists into the city with another, bigger security contingent. "Don't turn back, even if they start to fire," one U.S. soldier advised.
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But as soon as the Americans disappeared back into the base, the Afghan security guards assigned to the task balked. First they said they could not start their car. Then they suggested it would be too dangerous to go into the city in the dark.
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Eventually, the journalists decided to spend the night in their cars in the freezing desert temperatures outside the base, waiting for daybreak.
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2002 The Washington Post Company
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A commando from task force K-BAR scouting on an undisclosed location in Afghanistan Feb. 12.