KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Thirteen wounded Al Qaeda loyalists — grenades and other explosives strapped to their waists — kept authorities and most hospital workers away Thursday at Kandahar's main hospital.
The standoff illustrates the difficulty of restoring order in Kandahar a week after the Taliban handed over the city to a tribal council — and then promptly fled with their weapons.
The wounded Arab prisoners "have given an ultimatum. If someone else comes in, they'll blow themselves up," said Ghulam Mohammed, head nurse at Mirwais Hospital. "Only a few nurses are allowed to go in. Even I don't visit them."
Despite the threat, it was business as usual Thursday at the hospital, except around the three guarded rooms where the Al Qaeda Arabs lay in their beds, wired for self-destruction.
Visitors milled around the halls, and doctors and nurses performed their daily routines, seemingly unfazed except by the occasional burst of gunfire.
"They don't allow anybody to see them except just those who are treating them, dressing the wounds or cleaning the rooms," Mohammed said. "They are scared and they don't want to talk about anything. It's extremely difficult for the hospital staff because they or other patients could get injured. It's dangerous."
Last month, some Al Qaeda fighters concealed weapons and explosives when they surrendered to northern alliance forces near the northern city of Kunduz. Hundreds of them were killed in a prison uprising near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. A CIA operative, Johnny "Mike" Spann, died before the revolt was suppressed.
The Red Cross said Tuesday it was investigating reports that dozens of Taliban captives suffocated in shipping containers while being taken to prison in northern Afghanistan.
Shortly before abandoning the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban's Al Qaeda allies deposited their wounded at the hospital, which is funded by the international Red Cross.
An official of the new administration in the southern city, Mohammed Yusuf Pashtun, said he had ordered body searches of all Arab prisoners — including those at the hospital — but was unsure whether his instructions had been carried out.
Pashtun is from a faction loyal to Gul Agha, a former governor of the city who now has his old job back.
The hospital is guarded by forces loyal to Mullah Naqibullah, who helped broker the Taliban's surrender of Kandahar but has been accused of being too close to the former ruling militia.
Pashtun said the wounded Arabs at the hospital are under arrest and would be dealt with in time by the interim administration.
That, however, will require the cooperation of Naqibullah. On one occasion, the head nurse said, Agha's fighters arrived at the hospital and demanded entry. Naqibullah's men turned them back.
For the moment, authorities in Kandahar seem content to play along with the wounded Al Qaeda fighters as long as they remain in their rooms. After all, the new administration has no shortage of urgent problems.
For example, Pashtun said authorities were looking for about 100 former Taliban leaders who disappeared after the city fell. Most of them already had escaped to Pakistan, he said.
Pashtun said officials had a "general idea" of where top Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was, but they did not know his exact whereabouts.
Pashtun also said officials were trying to repair the Kandahar airport, which was heavily damaged by U.S. bombing, in time to reopen it next week for humanitarian aid flights. He said the airport was mined and booby-trapped by Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters before they fled.
Three tribal fighters have been killed and about a dozen wounded since the airport fell to anti-Taliban forces, he said.