Many had been thrown into the wells alive or shot at close range with their hands tied behind their backs, the officials said.
"The manner of death was horrendous," said John Mills, spokesman for the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, in a telephone interview after briefing reporters in Geneva on the investigation. Mills said the United Nations had not yet determined the total number who died or exactly when. But he said the bodies appeared to those of Taliban soldiers captured earlier this year.
"Prisoners were taken from detention, told they were going to be exchanged and then were trucked to wells of a type used by shepherds," Mills said at the briefing. "They were thrown into the wells either alive, or those who resisted were shot and then tossed in. Shots were fired into the wells and hand grenades were thrown in before the top of the well was bulldozed over."
Dr. Mark Skinner, a Canadian forensic expert on the team who represented Physicians for Human Rights, estimated that each well, near the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, could contain up to 100 bodies. There were about nine wells, each between 30 and 100 feet deep with 30 to 45 feet of water. The shallow graves in the same region contained an undetermined number of bodies that appeared to have been shot with heavy-caliber machine guns.
The investigators were led by a South Korean lawyer, Choong Hyun-paik, who watches developments in Afghanistan for the United Nations. He will submit his final report to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in March.
Paik also investigated allegations that the Taliban, a militant Islamic movement that controls more than 80 percent of the country, had itself killed noncombatants in northern Afghanistan.
The investigators visited two villages where local people said that Taliban fighters had shot civilians of the Hazara people as the troops moved from place to place demanding weapons. The local people said the Taliban fighters had killed 53 civilians of various ages in one village, and 30 elderly people in another. The Hazara, who are Shiite Muslims supported by Iran, have resisted Taliban rule.
Taliban leaders have said for months that prisoners were being killed by forces of the Northern Alliance, the remnants of the former mujahedeen government. Those remnants are largely made up of Tajiks and Uzbeks, who were driven out of Kabul in September 1996 and now fight from bases along the border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The alliance still holds Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations.
In May, a second-rank northern military leader, Abdul Malik Pahlawan, allied himself briefly with the Taliban, who entered the north's stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif for the first time. But Abdul Malik then double-crossed them and drove them out of Mazar-i-Sharif, taking thousands of prisoner.
Last month Abdul Malik's former commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had been driven into exile, said he had found the graves of Taliban prisoners around Shibarghan, near Mazar-i-Sharif.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company