JALALABAD, Afghanistan — The bodies of four journalists were brought out of Afghanistan on Nov. 21, two days after the group was ambushed by gunmen on the road to Kabul.
Anti-Taliban militiamen recovered the bodies Nov. 20. They were held overnight in a hospital in Jalalabad, and transported the next day on a Red Cross convoy into Pakistan.
The journalists were attacked Nov. 19 as they traveled in a group of about eight cars from Jalalabad to Kabul. An anti-Taliban leader in the area said the attackers were bandits, but witnesses said they shouted pro-Taliban slogans.
Militiamen loyal to the new administration in Jalalabad retrieved the bodies without encountering resistance. They brought the bodies to a Jalalabad hospital, where colleagues identified them.
The journalists were Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan photographer born in Kabul, both of the Reuters news agency; Maria Grazia Cutuli of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera; and Julio Fuentes of the Spanish daily El Mundo.
Cutuli and Fuentes filed reports Nov. 19 about finding what they believed were capsules of deadly sarin nerve gas at an abandoned al-Qaida camp near Jalalabad.
Fuentes’ story said he discovered a cardboard box with Russian labeling that said SARIN/V-Gas. His report said the box contained 300 vials of a yellowish liquid.
A Japanese terrorist organization used sarin in March 1995 in the Tokyo subway killing 12 people.
The Pentagon said the U.S. military had no information on the reports.
The area of the ambush had recently came under control of anti-Taliban forces. However, some Taliban stragglers and Arab fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden were believed to be in the area.
Haji Shershah, an anti-Taliban commander in Jalalabad, said villagers reported numerous other attacks involving gunfire on vehicles on the same road during the day.
A French journalist was robbed in the area the day before, and hours after the assault on the journalists, an Afghan car arrived in Jalalabad with two bullet holes after being attacked.
Shershah said the attackers were bandits, not Taliban or his own fighters.
On Nov. 24 in Catania, thousands of mourners packed the cathedral for the funeral of the 39-year-old Cutuli, who came from the Sicilian city.
“She went as far as Afghanistan because she had the courage of a lion,” said Erminda Franci, an elderly woman in the crowd of 5,000. “We can’t help but admire her strength and her spirit of sacrifice.”
“You fell in a sacrificial trench,” Archbishop Luigi Bommarito said in his homily. “You wanted to see close up in order to write truthful things.”
Cutuli’s brother, Mario, said the next day an autopsy had shown she had four gunshots in the back and an earlobe had been slashed off with a blade.
“Those wild beasts didn’t have the courage to look you in the face, to look at your charming eyes,” Bommarito said at the funeral.
+++++ In Islamabad, coalition partners get out message on war
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition launched an effort Nov. 20 to get its message on the war in Afghanistan out to a foreign audience. It conceded that the move came a bit late, 1 1/2 months after the bombing began.
The new Coalition Information Service opened phone lines to answer questions from the news media and held a news conference in Islamabad — the first of what it said would be daily briefings.
Spokesman Kenton Keith, a former U.S. ambassador to Qatar, conceded that the inauguration of the operation — after coalition bombing had already helped drive the Taliban from most of Afghanistan — should have happened long ago.
“To a certain extent, we dropped the ball,” he said.
Images of civilians killed in coalition bombing caused many to turn against the war. And the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, had given regular briefings in Islamabad until Pakistan’s government ordered a halt.
Meanwhile, aside from a few interviews U.S. officials gave to the Arabic-language news network Al-Jazeera, the U.S.-led coalition had little media presence outside the United States and Britain.
President Bush recognized that, announcing on Oct. 31 that he would send media officials to Britain and Pakistan to explain the anti-terrorism fight to foreign audiences.
“It’s important that the coalition be able to speak to the media,” said British Lt. Col. Robin Hodges, a spokesman for the Coalition Information Service.
He said the Islamabad news conferences, along with others already in place in Washington and London, would allow the coalition to get out its point of view throughout the 24-hour cycle of international news.
In a packed room of journalists with a long row of television cameras, Keith appeared in a black pinstriped suit, calmly fielding questions from foreign and Pakistani journalists.
One reporter asked him to respond to Taliban claims of widespread civilian casualties from the bombing.
“We deeply regret any civilian casualties,” Keith said. “We have no numbers on civilian casualties but we assume they are smaller in number than reports by the Taliban.”
The Taliban had begun to issue those reports on Oct. 7.