UN Official Would Support Riot Investigation

July 7, 2008 - 8:10 PM

London (CNSNews.com) - The U.N.'s chief refugee official said Friday that she would support an investigation into the quelling of a prison riot by anti-terror alliance forces near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

"I am concerned about the prison revolt. We don't really know in detail what happened, but we do know that a lot of people got killed," said Mary Robinson, the U.N.'s high commissioner for refugees. "It may well be that the best inquiry would be done by international human rights organisations."

Speaking in a live BBC webcast, Robinson said she was concerned about unanswered questions after the revolt.

"It would be important to go back over the full sequence - who was there, what happened," she said. "If there are contraventions of standards, the leaders of forces should be disqualified from a future government and the worst perpetrators brought to justice."

The Pentagon played down reports of a massacre, saying they were "not believable."

Human rights groups and non-governmental organizations were quick to call for an inquiry after hundreds of pro-Taliban soldiers were killed inside the Qala-e-Jhangi prison fort earlier this week.

Northern Alliance commander Gen. Rashid Dostum said a group of prisoners attacked a general he had sent to assure the captured soldiers that they would be treated humanely. After the attack, the lightly guarded prisoners seized a weapons depot inside the fort and brandished assault rifles and grenade launches against their captors.

The Northern Alliance said it lost 40 of its fighters in the battle to keep control of the prison, and U.S. warplanes launched about 30 air strikes to help quell the rebellion, which lasted three days.

About 500 non-Afghan Taliban prisoners were being held at the fort after surrendering at Kunduz. Reports said that nearly all were killed during the uprising.

Also killed during the uprising was CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann, the first American known to have died inside Afghanistan during the present conflict. Five other Americans were injured when a U.S. bomb went astray.

London-based Amnesty International has led calls for an investigation into the revolt and the attempt to put it down.

"The circumstances surrounding the fighting that followed are still not clear," Amnesty said in a statement. "An urgent inquiry should look into what triggered this violent incident, including any shortcomings in the holding and processing of the prisoners, and into the proportionality of the response by United Front, U.S. and U.K. forces.

"It should make urgent recommendations to ensure that other instances of surrender and holding of prisoners do not lead to similar disorders and loss of life," the organization said.

An opposition British political party even joined the fray. Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said the party supported an investigation

"The United Nations should institute an immediate inquiry into the events at the prison in Mazar-e-Sharif," Campbell said. "It appears that the Taliban prisoners set out to try and cause as much disruption as they could and were ready to take lives in the course of doing so."

Officials from the International Red Cross were still collecting and attempting to identify bodies inside the fort Friday.

On Thursday, a Pentagon spokeswoman denied reports that Northern Alliance troops committed war crimes.

"There have been reports of a massacre of 160 prisoners by opposition forces," spokeswoman Victoria Clark told reporters. "We have worked really hard to run this one to ground and reports are just not believable."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has also ruled out an inquiry.