As troops from Afghanistan's Northern Alliance close in on the strategic frontier city of Mazar-e Sharif, fears are rising that the attackers will slaughter thousands of Taliban soldiers and innocent civilians in what could become the latest round of ethnic bloodletting in this two-decade-long civil war.
Afghanistan's second-largest city after the capital, Kabul, multi-ethnic Mazar-e Sharif has already witnessed two major spasms of violence targeting ethnic groups.
The first came in 1997, when Taliban forces briefly captured, then lost, the city. Thousands of Taliban fighters, who are mainly ethnic Pashtuns, were summarily executed after they lost their short hold on the city.
More violence erupted a year later, when the Taliban returned again, to knock out the United Front, another term for the Northern Alliance. The conquering forces wiped out thousands of Shiite Muslim Hazaras, the ethnic group they blamed in the 1997 killings.
Now the city, home to a mix of ethnic groups, including Pashtuns and Hazaras, as well as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmen, looks set to change hands again.
On Sunday, US air attacks were reported near frontline positions southeast of Mazar-e Sharif.
United Front Commander Ato Mukhammad, contacted by satellite telephone, says he and his men have been locked in fierce battles with their Taliban foes less than 3 miles southwest of the city. Meanwhile, Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostam and his forces are advancing from the southeast, with some reports putting them as close as 15 miles from city borders.
Taliban troops in Mazar-e Sharif, believed to number about 10,000, have been cut off from their comrades and sources of supply in the south. US bombs have pummeled airports and air bases across Afghanistan, knocking out the Taliban's ability to reach their forces in the north by plane or helicopter.
As well, United Front forces have blocked their access to the main roadways linking the northern desert city to southern Afghanistan.
"They are completely isolated," Abdullah Abdullah, the United Front foreign minister, said last week in Khwaja Bahauddin.
Dr. Abdullah says Taliban forces and their sympathizers captured by the United Front will be treated fairly. But he adds that his forces may not be able to maintain control if city residents rise up against them. "In a popular uprising, one cannot control everything," Abdullah says. "The only thing we can promise is that civilians will not be targeted."
Past spasms of violence in Mazar-e Sharif have erupted, in part, because city residents simply picked up their guns and took to the streets. Many Afghan foot soldiers swear allegiance to local commanders and warlords rather than to unified movements like the Taliban or the Northern Alliance.
In the case of Mazar-e Sharif, there are particular concerns that ethnic Hazaras want revenge for the 1998 killings as well as other recent bloodlettings by the Taliban. Reports from Mazar-e Sharif indicate that Pashtun families, who may have no connection to the Taliban other than their common ethnicity, are already fleeing the city in droves. About half of Afghanistan's 20 million people are Pashtun.
Analysts say those who live in Mazar-e Sharif may have reason to be concerned. "I really fear that the Hazaras are out for blood," says Ahmed Rashid, author of The Taliban, a book that chronicles the deep ethnic divisions in Afghan society and the recent upheavals that have dug them deeper.
Taliban troops first briefly captured Mazar-e Sharif in May 1997, after Malik Pahlawan, a key ally to General Dostam, defected to their side. After arriving, the hard-line Islamic soldiers quickly set about disarming the various factions that had previously shared control of the city. Members of the Shiite Muslim Hazara community, who are generally loyal to the Hezb-e-Wahadat faction, resisted, and bloody street battles erupted.
In the days that followed, human rights groups say more than 2,000 Taliban fighters were summarily executed - many of them pushed into truck containers to bake in the desert, or drowned in deep wells. Northern Alliance forces later placed the blame squarely on Mr. Pahlawan, who rejected his alliance with the Taliban days after inviting them to the city. However, witnesses say members of the Hezb-e-Wahadat militia also took part in the killing spree.
A little more than a year later, in August 1998, Taliban forces returned to Mazar-e Sharif with revenge on their minds.
A Human Rights Watch report cites eyewitnesses as saying Taliban troops entered the city Aug. 8, shooting at "anything that moved" in what one called a "killing frenzy." In the days that followed, Taliban troops conducted house-to-house searches, arresting and killing Hazara boys and men they found.
The Human Rights Watch report quoted witnesses who said boys and men were forced to recite Sunni prayers to prove their faith. Most Taliban are Sunni Muslims who reject the Shia brand of Islam as blasphemy.
As the violence got under way, Taliban authorities delivered speeches inciting violence against the Hazaras, indicating the actions were not just the fault of renegade soldiers, but sanctioned by the Taliban regime.
In all, as many as 2,000 Hazaras were killed in what Human Rights Watch called "one of the worst atrocities of Afghanistan's long civil war."
There were persistent reports as well of the abduction and rape of Hazara women and girls. Thousands of people were rounded up and jailed, with more than 4,500 Mazar-e Sharif men incarcerated for months.
In January of this year, there were further reports of Hazara massacres as Taliban troops, many of them based in Mazar-e Sharif, advanced through the highlands of central Bamiyan province.
"The Hazaras will want revenge for that, too," says Rashid.