(New York) -- In a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Human Rights Watch urged the United States to use its influence with the United Front (Northern Alliance) in Afghanistan to ensure that their forces do not engage in reprisal killings, indiscriminate shelling, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Mazar-i Sharif, the largest city in northern Afghanistan, has an ethnically-mixed population. It has been the site of previous atrocities by Taliban and United Front forces.

United Front forces were forced to retreat from their positions near the city's airport late last week, but over the weekend U.S. planes paved the way for a renewed United Front offensive by striking Taliban positions near the city and the opposition-held enclave of Dara-i Suf to its south.

"The last thing we need is a renewal of the indiscriminate violence that paved the way for the Taliban in the first place," said Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch cautioned that a violent end to Taliban rule in Mazar-i Sharif could pave the way for retaliation by UF forces against local Pashtun civilians and others perceived to be associated with Taliban rule.

After retaking Mazar-i Sharif in August 1998, Taliban forces killed about 2000 mostly ethnic Hazara civilians. The Taliban-installed governor publicly called the Hazaras, who are Shi'a Muslims, "infidels" and threatened them with death if they did not convert to Sunni Islam or leave Afghanistan. Hundreds of Hazara civilians fled the city. Since 1998, the Taliban have also allowed farmers and nomads from communities that are locally aligned with them, particularly Pashtuns, to encroach on land cultivated by minority ethnic groups south of Mazar-i Sharif.

Human Rights Watch said these abuses by the Taliban could lead to reprisals as power shifts. The past conduct of United Front forces in this part of Afghanistan is not encouraging. In May 1997, United Front forces under the command of Gen. Abdul Malik Pahlawan killed an estimated 3,000 Taliban prisoners in Mazar-i Sharif, taking some to the desert to be shot and throwing others down wells and blowing them up with grenades.

Pahlawan himself is no longer a member of the United Front. However, other commanders who remain with the Front amassed a deplorable record of attacks on civilians between the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and the Taliban's capture of Kabul in 1996.