Page last updated at 14:05 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 15:05 UK

The Afghan ship-container 'massacre'

Prisoners at Sheberghan prison in January 2002
Prisoners at Sheberghan jail - the destination for the containers

Allegations that hundreds or even thousands of surrendering pro-Taliban prisoners were killed in 2001 while in the custody of US-backed warlord Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum have returned to the headlines after first being reported in 2002.

US President Barack Obama has said he is looking into the alleged atrocity, amid recent reports that the administration of George W Bush resisted efforts to investigate it fully.

Accounts of the alleged massacre were carried by Newsweek and the the New York Times.

It is said to have happened as prisoners captured in a large-scale negotiated surrender were being transported in shipping containers from the town of Kunduz to Sheberghan prison, a stronghold of Gen Dostum west of Mazar-e-Sharif.

An in-depth Newsweek investigation, published in August 2002, quoted prisoners who said they had survived the ordeal, and men who drove the container trucks to the prison under the watch of Gen Dostum's militiamen.

They opened the doors and the dead bodies spilled out like fish
Container truck driver quoted by Newsweek

According to this investigation, up to 200 prisoners were packed into each shipping container, measuring a standard 40ft x 8ft x 8ft (12m x 2.5m x 2.5m).

Many of the prisoners shrieked as they were transferred to the containers, one driver reported. They may have been aware of the fate that allegedly awaited many of them, as this method of killing had allegedly been used before in Afghanistan - a country littered with rusting container trucks previously used to transport aid.


After some hours in the containers, the prisoners began to beat on the walls, saying they were dying and needed water.


According to Newsweek, some drivers acquiesced, punching holes into the containers to get air into them, and passing water through to the captives inside.

But they said Gen Dostum's men punished those they saw doing this, and many of the prisoners' pleas were ignored. In those containers, most, if not all, of the captives had died by the time they were opened at Sheberghan prison.

"They opened the doors and the dead bodies spilled out like fish," one driver told Newsweek.

All in all, Newsweek reported, several convoys of container trucks arrived at the prison over about 10 days - many carrying cargoes of dead bodies.

It spoke to prisoners who said they had travelled in the convoy, who confirmed the drivers' accounts.

One said they became so desperate with thirst that they began licking the sweat from each other's bodies. Others say the captives began losing their reason and started biting each other.

Prisoners 'shot'

But the prisoners' deaths were not confined to suffocation and thirst, according to a witness quoted in January 2002 by the New York Times.

A photo from April 2002 showing a test trench dug by the group Physicians for Human Rights forensic as part of a preliminary investigation for the UN at the Dasht-e-Leili site near Sherberghan, Afghanistan, in which 15 bodies were exposed
Physicians for Human Rights uncovered an apparent mass grave

The witness, whom the newspaper described as "close to Gen Dostum's inner circle", said he had seen blood running from three or four bullet-ridden containers.

He claimed ethnic Hazara soldiers had carried out shootings, the report said, but soldiers at Qala Zeina, where the alleged shootings took place, said it had been Uzbek troops belonging to Gen Dostum.

Also in January 2002, the group Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported its discovery of an apparent mass grave in Dasht-e-Leili desert, near Sheberghan prison.

Fifteen sets of remains were found and three autopsies conducted. But the group's request for an investigation - along with similar requests from the Red Cross and the FBI - was never acted upon by the Bush administration, the New York Times recently reported.

The PHR now says it is still seeking answers about exactly what happens, and it laments that no full investigation has been carried out.

It says crucial evidence may have been lost, or may be in danger of being lost, as the mass grave appears to have been tampered with since its discovery.

According to the New York Times, a recently declassified state department report also suggests that several Afghan witnesses to the alleged atrocity have since been tortured or killed.

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