By Mark Baker, Herald Correspondent in Quetta
Opposition forces battling Taliban resistance near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar are reported to have massacred up to 160 captured Taliban fighters in the presence of United States military personnel.
An opposition commander said the Taliban who refused to surrender last week during a battle to control the strategic town of Taktha Pul, east of Kandahar, were executed despite attempts by US special forces to intervene.
"We tried our best to persuade [the Taliban] to surrender before we attacked," the unnamed commander told Reuters. "We asked them many times, quoted the Koran and even offered them money.
"They replied with abuse, so we had no choice. We executed around 160 Taliban that were captured. They were made to stand in a long line, and five or six of our fighters used light machine-guns on them."
He confirmed that seven or eight US military personnel, who had been travelling with the opposition forces as advisers and had been filming the battle, tried to stop the executions.
As opposition forces closed in on Kandahar, the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, appealed to his troops to join him in a fight to the death to defend their remaining territory around the city, the movement's spiritual heartland and last stronghold.
"I am sitting in a bunker like you to defend Islam," he said in a message believed to have been broadcast in the Kandahar region on Wednesday. "I am not scared of death, and you should not be scared of death.
"The real fight against the forces of infidels has started now. We were waiting for the American troops. Kill American troops and their agents wherever you find them."
The Taktha Pul executions come amid mounting international protests over the slaughter of hundreds of Taliban prisoners earlier this week when Northern Alliance troops, backed by US and British special forces, crushed a revolt in a fort outside the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The US suffered its first battlefield fatality of the war during the revolt, with the death of a CIA operative, Johnny Michael Spann, confirmed yesterday.
The two mass killings of Taliban prisoners have increased concerns about the brutal tactics of opposition forces and are likely to complicate allied efforts to persuade Taliban forces to surrender.
Alliance commanders say they now plan to send their forces south of Kabul towards Kandahar, a move that would increase the pressure on the Taliban but would be likely to anger Pakistan, a vital US ally already concerned by its advance across much of the country.
The CBS television network in the US reported growing signs that the Taliban were crumbling, with the defection of senior members, including the head of military intelligence and at least two government ministers, some of whom had crossed into Pakistan.
But as hundreds of US marines continued their build-up at an airfield base south-west of Kandahar, Taliban troops were reported to have regained territory east of the city that was captured by opposition fighters earlier this week. The Taliban also appeared to remain in control of the town of Spin Boldak.
Pentagon officials confirmed that they were now focusing the air campaign against caves and tunnels around Kandahar and the eastern city of Jalalabad, where Osama bin Laden is suspected to be hiding.