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Afghan war crimes a low priority

Despite a UN visit last week, a full investigation of the mass grave in Dasht-e Leili has yet to begin.

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The prisoners buried here were first captured some 200 miles east at Kunduz, a pocket of Taliban and Al Qaeda resistance. Some of those who surrendered were taken to Qala Jangi prison in Mazar-e Sharif, where a later uprising, put down by Dostum with the help of US bombers, resulted in the death of one CIA agent and the capture American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Other prisoners captured at Kunduz were dispatched to a prison in Shibergan, about four hours west by car, and it was POWs from this group who landed in the grave at Dasht-e Leili.

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Many of the prisoners buried at Dasht-e-Leili had already been interrogated by the same US Special Forces who handled Lindh, say Afghan officials.

Mr. Uddin and his colleagues in the new Afghan government are in no hurry to consider a prosecution against Commander Kamal, much less his superior, Dostum. "When Kamal reached Shibergan and discovered that hundreds of his prisoners had died, he was afraid and just buried them on the spot," he says. "He was particularly afraid of what Gen. Dostum would say when he found out.

"But, in my view, Kamal did not want to kill these people," he adds. "He was using these containers because he was worried about security and a break-out."

Investigators with Physicians for Human Rights estimate that between 200 and 300 bodies are now buried in Dasht-e-Leili. A proper accounting of the dead would start with prisoner records that can only be obtained from Dostum and his allies, possibly the US Special Forces, said a Western official in Kabul. In any case, cooperation in the investigation is unlikely to come from Dostum's lieutenants in nearby Shibergan. Mohammed Qul, a deputy security chief for Dostum, says that the spate of accusations against his fellow Uzbeks is just "another indication to me that Al Qaeda is planting propaganda to destabilize the entire country. No one seems to remember that during the prison fighting, some 200 of our men and several of our leading commanders were killed by Al Qaeda."

Mr. Qul charged that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters had massacred dozens of civilians, including small children, in the weeks prior to their own deaths by suffocation. "The reason for the harsh treatment of the prisoners had to do with the real danger of revolt that they posed," he says. "No one is responsible for this because it is an accident."

The Physicians for Human Rights is calling for a full scientific investigation of the site. In the meanwhile, the group wants 24-hour security for the site, which is currently unmonitored and in territory controlled by Dostum. "It's just not appropriate to leave the site in control of someone who may be implicated," Rubenstein says.

Dasht-e Leili had been used earlier as a mass grave. In 1997, fighters for Dostum dug up a mass grave here to discredit a rival warlord, who Dostum claimed had killed prisoners by the same suffocating container deaths alleged to have occurred in November.