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Taliban destroy town that was rebel stronghold

Ahmed Rashid in Lahore, June 13, 2001

RAMPAGING Taliban troops have razed a town in central Afghanistan, the home of 60,000 people, after capturing it from the opposition United Front. Tens of thousands of people have fled the fighting, adding to the refugee crisis in Afghanistan, as the Taliban continue to restrict United Nations relief agencies from operating freely.

UN officials confirmed yesterday that the Taliban had burnt down Yakowlang, in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, after capturing it from United Front forces on Monday.

A UN official said: "The Taliban carried out a heavy aerial bombardment of the city during the fighting and, after entering it, ground troops set fire to every building. The town has burnt to the ground."

Western relief workers said that at least 60 people were missing, but the number of casualties could not be confirmed because there are no relief workers or UN officials in the region. Most of the town's inhabitants had already fled as fighting intensified around it in the past few days.

Yakowlang has been bitterly fought over for several months and the Taliban lost control of the city on June 6. The town is due west of Baimiyan, where in March the Taliban destroyed two giant Buddha statues.

Yakowlang is a major base for the opposition Hizbe Wahadat party, part of the United Front. Most of the inhabitants are of the Hazara ethnic group and are Shia Muslims, whom the Sunni Taliban loathe. In January Taliban troops under the command of Mullah Dadullah massacred more than 300 Hazara people in Yakowlang after the Taliban had lost and then recaptured the town.

Diplomats said Dadullah was again in command of Taliban troops at Yakowlang and gave the order for the burning of the town. Dadullah's force includes hundreds of Arab extremists loyal to the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden and militants belonging to anti-Shia groups in Pakistan.

The Taliban's motive for burning the town appears to be to set an example to United Front strongholds still holding out in north-eastern Afghanistan and to crush all Hazara Shia resistance.

Most of Yakowlang's residents are now believed to be in the mountains of Hazarajat without food or water. Hazarajat is already the most economically deprived region of Afghanistan and the new exodus joins one million Afghans on the move seeking shelter and food from UN agencies.

Last week two UN agencies, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, said five million people in Afghanistan could be facing starvation amid "mounting evidence of emerging widespread famine conditions".

The Taliban continue to restrict the activities of UN relief agencies and on Friday the WFP will have to close more than 100 bakeries in Kabul because of the Taliban's refusal to accommodate its demand for a fair distribution of bread to the most needy civilians.

The Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has threatened the UN with severe repercussions if it places officials on Afghanistan's borders to monitor an arms embargo against the Taliban imposed by the Security Council in January.

"In case someone is appointed as controller on the Afghan border, the Islamic Emirate would look at it as an aggression and treat them like enemies on the front line," Omar said on state-run Radio Shariat last week.

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