Taliban offer to surrender last outpost

BANGI, Afghanistan -- The Taliban offered on Sunday to surrender their last northern stronghold if Arab and other foreign fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden in the city are spared, an anti-Taliban commander said. The northern alliance, meanwhile, agreed to a conference on neutral ground to plan a multiethnic government.

The offer to surrender Kunduz came after U.S. bombers unleashed their heaviest strikes so far on the city. Warplanes were also reported in action near the Taliban southern stronghold of Kandahar and areas of eastern Afghanistan where bin Laden is believed to maintain camps and hide-outs.

In Washington, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said the advances on the ground were reducing bin Laden's room to maneuver. "We think that the more that we are stripping away his protection ... that we're beginning to narrow his possibilities for hiding," Rice told CNN's "Late Edition."

Secretary of State Colin Powell said the northern alliance had agreed to take part in U.N.-brokered talks with other Afghan factions about forming a new power-sharing government in Afghanistan.

The head of the alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, said Saturday his group supported such a conference but wanted it to take place in the capital, Kabul. The United Nations favors a neutral site.

Following talks in Tashkent, Uzbekistan with U.S. envoy James F. Dobbins, the alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah, said the meeting "will be held outside Afghanistan," possibly as early as this week.

That would represent a major concession by the alliance, which clearly wanted the conference to take place in a city under its control. Abdullah said some locations proposed by the United Nations "were acceptable to us," citing Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

"It is my understanding based on the discussions we had today that the issues of venue and timing of such a meeting are agreed," Dobbins said.

The United States had been putting heavy pressure on the northern alliance to drop Kabul as a venue for the talks. Powell expressed hopes the meeting organized by the top U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, would take place in days.

"We've got to get this moving," Powell said on "Fox News Sunday."

A place for women

He told ABC's "This Week" that the United States believes any new power structure in Afghanistan should include women. However, he said, "we're not going to dictate what they do with their government."

Rice echoed those comments.

"We have to remember that Afghanistan is a place where women were educated, where girls were educated, where lots of women were doctors and teachers. This is not a new concept," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But certainly, we cannot choose the members of the next Afghan government."

Terror of the Taliban

B-52s struck Taliban positions outside Kunduz, unleashing their biggest bombs yet in the area.

Refugees fleeing Kunduz say a hard core of Taliban soldiers and allied Arab, Chechen and Pakistani fighters are in control after fleeing other districts across the north in the past week.

The refugees told of terror at the hands of Taliban troops and foreign fighters. The foreigners, fearing they will be killed if the city falls, were reportedly blocking Afghan Taliban trying to surrender.

One refugee, Dar Zardad, said Taliban killed eight boys in their late teens after some of the youths laughed at the militia fighters. Zardad and other refugees in Bangi, a village about 30 miles to the east, recounted how fighters shot and killed a doctor when he delayed responding to their summons to come treat wounded Taliban troops.

Witnesses said at least 100 Taliban soldiers were shot, apparently by gunmen from their own side, as they approached northern alliance lines in an attempt to surrender.

Still, Taliban leaders in the city were negotiating with alliance commanders by radio.

The Taliban said they would surrender if the alliance guaranteed that non-Afghans fighting alongside the Islamic militia would not be killed and if the surrender were witnessed by U.N. representatives, an alliance commander, Nahidullah, said in the city of Taloqan, about 40 miles to the east.

There was no immediate word whether the opposition alliance has accepted the offer.