Ismail Khan, `Lion of Herat', a veteran who fell foul of Taliban


Ismail Khan, the man hijackers of the Afghan airliner reportedly want freed, is a legendary veteran of the war against the Soviet occupation and a warlord who fell out with Afghanistan's present Islamic government.

Known as the "Lion of Herat", Khan was detained by the ruling Islamic Taliban movement after it swept to power in 1996 and took control of most of the war-torn country.

Afghan Islamic Press, a news agency based in Pakistan, reported there were six hijackers demanding the release of Khan.

Khan (58), who was admired for establishing peace in north-western Afghanistan from 1992 to 1995, ran foul of the Taliban during their march to power.

"When the Taliban came on the scene the situation changed. At present he is in prison," a Taliban New York spokesman said.

Khan, once an officer in the Afghan army, joined the fight against the Russians in 1979 after witnessing the massacre of 25,000 people in Herat, a provincial capital in western Afghanistan.

During the next 13 years he rose through the ranks of the Jamiat-e-Islami resistance organisation, making it his mission to expel Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

His behaviour on and off the battlefield earned him the name "Lion of Herat" and in 1984 he became leader of Jamiat forces in western Afghanistan.

Among his most famous exploits was leadership of an attack on the then Soviet Shindand air base in 1985 which destroyed 20 MIG fighters.

He rose to prominence for his resistance after the Red Army rolled into Afghanistan in 1979, beginning its decade-long occupation.

After the Soviets had pulled out and the next pro-Moscow regime was overthrown by the Afghan mujahideen resistance groups in 1992, Khan got control of several provinces near the borders with Iran and Turkmenistan.

He maintained a semblance of security in his areas while chaos and infighting raged elsewhere.

But Khan fell out with the key opposition commander Ahmad Shah Masood after he refused to send military supplies to Masood in Kabul when the city was besieged by other rival factions.

In 1992, when the Kabul communist government collapsed, Khan became a senior commander in the reformed Afghan army and was given responsibility for the country's south-west zone.

He disarmed warlords in the area, established peace in most of the provinces and rebuilt Herat, a city founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.

But as alliances shifted in the unstable Kabul central government and the Taliban grew in strength, Khan was forced to flee to Iran in 1995.

He returned to fight against the Taliban but was swiftly captured.

Although the opposition have denied any involvement in the hijacking, they admitted Khan is still regarded as a hero: "While governor Ismail Khan remains a hero of the struggle for liberation of Afghanistan, and whose release from captivity by the Taliban through legal ways has continuously been demanded and yielded nothing, seeking his freedom by means of hijacking is unacceptable."