Amy Essner took time from her lunch break Tuesday to fill the tank of her car after gas prices fell to below 90 cents a gallon.
By Ellen Knickmeyer ~ The Associated Press
TALOQAN, Afghanistan -- Machine-gun fire zeroing in behind them, Mohammed Azim and his desperate comrades sped through Taliban front lines in a jeep with its lights off, crashing down mountain roads, rushing past a mined no-man's-land in the dark of night.
More gunshots -- these fired in jubilation -- and glad cries of welcome greeted them when they reached the other side.
Flinging his black-and-white turban to the dirt, Azim pressed newfound anti-Taliban alliance comrades to his chest. Like hundreds of other defectors from the besieged Taliban-held city of Kunduz in recent days, Azim was a Taliban no more.
"We came to help fight the international terrorists. As long as the Taliban are in Kunduz, I will fight," the baby-faced 30-year-old, now in the brown felt turban of the northern alliance, declared Tuesday.
He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with scores of new defectors in the shabby courtyard of the alliance's military headquarters at Taloqan, about 40 miles from Kunduz.
They were sleeping and eating in the same quarters with their former enemies. Soon, they would go to join the assault on the city that they had been fighting to defend, they said.
Alliance Gen. Mohammed Daoud claimed Tuesday that thousands of Taliban have defected from Kunduz in recent days, and defectors' own accounts indicate at least hundreds have fled since Sunday.
Uncounted thousands more civilians from Kunduz are streaming out in flight from U.S. bombs. The exodus is emptying the city around the hard-core Taliban and foreign fighters holding it.
Al-Qaida among them
Dedicated Taliban and thousands of foreign Islamic militants -- including Arabs, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, Chechens, Chinese and Myanmarese -- are holed up in the city after being routed from positions across northern Afghanistan. They include 1,000 members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, Daoud said.
By all accounts, the foreigners at Kunduz are adamant against surrender -- either theirs, or of the Afghan Taliban fighting with them.
"They're afraid that if we surrender the northern alliance will kill them," said Jamal Khan, 27, a defector who came over on Sunday night.
"They say, 'We will fight to our last drop of blood," Azim said.
Foreign militants in recent days have gunned down 470 Taliban -- commanders and fighters -- who tried to surrender, Daoud said.
Communicating across front lines over two-way radios, Afghan Taliban tell the alliance that the foreign fighters are spying on those they suspect of wanting to switch sides, front-line commander Fazel Jan said Tuesday.
Jan was waiting at the front-line pass east of Kunduz for a group of 200 more defectors who had radioed they were coming over -- tonight, or tomorrow, Jan wasn't sure.
"They say that if they come over by one, or two, or five, or 10, that the Arabs will capture and kill them," he said. "So they come over in big groups, so the Arabs can't fight them."
Fear of bombs
Defectors arriving in Taloqan cite fear of U.S. bombs and anger at Arabs controlling them on the front lines and in the city as driving their defection.
The Taliban recruited many of them from this region -- and the thought of now opening fire on their friends and family is especially unbearable to them.
"I came because it's safe, and because now I'm with my people," said Abdullah Baghalan. He escaped across Taliban lines before dawn Tuesday, leading a convoy of a jeep and six pickup trucks.
In the alliance's seedy military headquarters, smiling defectors exclaimed, kissed and hugged friends not seen since war separated them months or years ago.
Not all seemed to have abandoned the Taliban side entirely -- at least not in heart and mind.
"I joined the Taliban with pleasure," said one defect, still wearing his black-and-white turban, rejecting the claim of many that they had been forced into Taliban ranks.
Asked if he still believed in the Taliban cause, he said, "I still believe in Islam." Unable to bring himself to answer further among the grinning, gaping northern alliance fighters hanging onto his every word, the northern alliance's newest recruit broke away into the crowd.