In Kabul, mercy amid mayhem

Northern Alliance rebels, in about-face, rescue fleeing Taliban and provide them with medical attention.

Hares's last stand is hardly the stuff of legend.

A Taliban straggler who was left behind as the radical Islamic militia fled the Afghan capital, Kabul, he - along with three comrades - was chased and beaten by a band of angry residents.

As the crowd turned on the Taliban fighters, Hares and his comrades turned, fired back at the charging mob - killing one rebel Northern Alliance soldier and wounding another - and then waited for certain death.

Hares was shot in the shoulder and groin by an alliance soldier; another escaping Talib was hit by a bullet in the leg. But instead of a mob killing, the Taliban fugitives were saved by their enemy.

"We were told the alliance would be merciless if we were caught," says the stringy-haired young student from an Islamic religious school in Pakistan. "I can't believe they are taking care of me," he adds, sitting at the foot of a rebel tank and fingering his dark wood prayer beads. His purple tunic is still stained with blood and covered with flies.

The charging rebel forces have reportedly commited several atrocities during their sweep across Afghanistan.

But in a nation long used to war, where the grim list of past massacres, summary executions, and revenge attacks seems as relentless as the beat of a military drum, there are also signs that the alliance is becoming increasingly vigilant about curbing abuses.

With the Taliban on the run, the Northern Alliance human rights performance will translate directly into how its rule is accepted on the ground - and could determine whether Afghanistan suffers more civil war, or will be able to build an inclusive, stable peace.

"We rescued them," says Commander Kamran, whose unit came across the fleeing fighters as they rolled into the city. "Our commanders ordered us not to kill prisoners, but to save them."

Kamran, in fact, dressed their wounds himself. Yesterday, he ordered a truck to take them from his base to a downtown hospital run by an Italian relief agency. They arrived with a note that read: "Treat them, on condition that we get them back."

Not all Taliban fighters - who have been responsible for a string of atrocities of their own during their five years of rule - have been so lucky. Some, like Hares, were flushed out in Kabul, but met grisly deaths at civilian hands. Independent witnesses have seen at least one execution of an Arab Taliban fighter during the rebel advance on the capital.

A United Nations official in Islamabad, Stephanie Bunker, told reporters that they had heard several accounts - though unconfirmed - that Northern Alliance rebels rounded up and killed more than 100 Taliban soldiers in Mazar-e Sharif on Saturday.

Alliance officials deny that occurred, and say their troops are under strict instructions to observe human rights.

That message has been getting through, observers say, in ways that might ease concern in Kabul about the past bloody history of alliance forces here. Alliance forces - a loose grouping of ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities - were largely responsible for atrocities in the early 1990s that left tens of thousands dead.

That reputation is causing fear and mistrust in the capital today, as alliance forces spread their control. Human rights are under scrutiny here as never before - a lesson that some say the alliance has been learning.

"I hope this [recognition of human rights] will correspond to reality," says Gino Strada, executive director of the Italian relief agency Emergency, which runs the hospital where the war prisoners were admitted."They've grown up. Many people have changed their views these last 10 years."

"Yes, it's a change," admits Kamran. "It is our formal duty to respect the enemy."

And enemy for the alliance these four young men appeared to be, judging by the documents they carried. Besides Pakistan identity documents - and even a wallet-sized shoe-care guide - they carried a deployment order written on letterhead from the "Harkat-Ul-Mujahidin, Jammu and Kashmir," a group of Islamic militants fighting Indian troops in Kashmir.

"These four men are coming for jihad [holy war] to Afghanistan," the letter read. "Please help and facilitate them in their work." A note at the bottom, written with another hand, implored: "Help them join with yourselves."

An even more curious document was a degree for a "diploma course" issued by the International Islamic Movement University, with an address in Islamabad, Pakistan. The director was named "Abu Osama," or "Father of Osama" - though it was not clear if there was any link to accused terrorist Osama bin Laden or his al Qaeda network.

Still, these prisoners of war fall under the protection of alliance forces, says alliance Gen. Fazil Ahmed Azimi. "I promised that when we occupied Kabul, there would be no problems," the general says, speaking at the base where the prisoners were kept, on the eastern outskirts of the city. "Now you can see that all is well, that all is calm. Pakistan claims that there will be revenge attacks, but we have no problems."

Those treating Hares and his fellow Taliban prisoner, Jawad Hussein, also from Pakistan, say they hope the leniency lasts.

"Probably their biggest worry now is about their future security," says Mr. Strada, a surgeon, after inspecting the wounds with two unarmed alliance guards looking on.

"I am sure their rights will be respected when they are released," he said. "I hope."

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