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Blame disputed in journalist killings

French journalist Johanne Sutton  

DASHTIQALA, Afghanistan (CNN) -- A survivor of an ambush that killed three journalists said they were unintended targets, despite Northern Alliance claims that the journalists were "assassinated."

The journalists -- two French, one German -- were killed Sunday when the Northern Alliance military convoy in which they were traveling was ambushed by Taliban troops, about 30 minutes outside of this northern town, near the city of Taloqan.

Those killed were part of a group of six journalists who were riding on the back of an armored personnel carrier with alliance forces going toward the front lines.

In an exclusive interview with CNN's Satinder Bindra, Northern Alliance Gen. Atiqullah Baryalai said those killed were "assassinated."

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But Paul McGeough, a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, disagreed.

"I don't think they could have discerned that in the pitch dark, there were six journalists on top of this machine," said McGeough, one of the three journalists who survived.

He said Baryalai's claim was biased "spin" and noted that "it's funny how in war, people want to make the appalling more appalling."

Describing the scene before the ambush, McGeough said after several hours of fighting, Taliban forces fell silent.

Truck was key to survival

The alliance forces thought this was because they had overcome the Taliban forces. Some got off the APC to claim an enemy trench, when Taliban forces fired several rocket-propelled grenades from three different directions, McGeough said.

"Those who managed to stay on the machine survived, those who jumped or fell died," he said.

Officials with Radio France International said that reporter Johanne Sutton was killed in the attack. She suffered extensive injuries to her chest, Baryalai said, and was killed instantly.

Another French journalist, RTL reporter Pierre Billaud, 31, was also killed in the ambush, the network said on its Web site. RTL said Sunday was the first time that Billaud, an experienced war reporter, had managed to cross over the front line.

The third journalist killed was working for the German magazine Stern, according to the magazine's Web site.

Assassination claim

Billaud and the German journalist were knocked off the vehicle by the explosion and were later found dead by Northern Alliance troops in a Taliban trench, Baryalai said.

"These people had been killed by the Arabic people [Taliban fighters]," Baryalai said. "They were captured and then assassinated."

The general said the Northern Alliance made extensive efforts to rescue the journalists before they were captured, but that the Taliban "took them to trenches and killed them." He said opposition forces had no trenches or holes in the region.

Baryalai said the killing was intentional: "This is not fair what the Taliban did ... they treated innocents this way."

He said the journalists were carrying identification and would have identified themselves to their captors.

"The Taliban know how to speak English and could have solved the problem," he said. "It might be that these Arabic people were excited, that's why they killed."

The bodies were being sent to a field hospital, he said.

French President Jacques Chirac sent his condolences to the French families and praised the courage of all journalists who put their lives in danger in the name of freedom and information, his spokeswoman said.

-- CNN Paris Bureau Chief Peter Humi and Correspondents Ben Wedeman and Satinder Bindra contributed to this report.


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