Alliance, U.S. hit Kunduz defenses

Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. warplanes and northern alliance artillery on Monday pounded positions of the Taliban and foreign militants linked to Osama bin Laden at Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in the north. Four international journalists were missing after gunmen took them from a convoy in eastern Afghanistan.

The siege tightened around Kunduz as U.N. and U.S. diplomats tried to quickly arrange a conference of Afghan factions to plan a post-Taliban government -- perhaps as soon as this week. Over the weekend, the northern alliance made a key concession, agreeing to hold the meeting on neutral ground.

Foreign militants -- mostly Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens -- loyal to bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network were preventing Afghan Taliban fighters from surrendering Kunduz, refugees from the city said.

Alliance troops for the past several days had encircled the city without firing. But on Monday they used two tanks, two artillery pieces and a multiple rocket launcher to fire on Taliban positions in the hills.

American warplanes also struck the city's defenses Monday. U.S. strikes were also reported in the south and east of the country.

Refugees from Kunduz have said up to 300 Taliban fighters were shot -- apparently by their own side -- as they tried to surrender Friday. Reports of other killings on a smaller scale have also emerged in recent days.

One refugee, Dar Zardad, said Taliban in Kunduz killed eight teen-agers after some of the youths laughed at them, and other fighters killed a doctor who was slow to treat wounded Taliban.

Some alliance commanders cast doubt on an earlier reported Taliban offer to surrender if the foreigners' safety was guaranteed. The Taliban are not in a position to talk terms because the Arabs were in effective control of Kunduz, the commanders said.

The four journalists were missing after armed men stopped their convoy of six to eight cars on the road between the capital, Kabul, and the eastern city of Jalalabad. Gunmen opened fire after the journalists were taken from their cars, drivers said.

"They took the journalists, and when the journalists turned to look at them, the gunmen shot," said driver Mohammed Farrad.

The area recently came mainly under the control of anti-Taliban forces. However, some Taliban stragglers and Arab fighters were still believed to be in the area.

Two Reuters journalists were missing from the ambush -- Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan-born photographer -- the news agency said. Also missing were Julio Fuentes, of the Spanish daily El Mundo, and Maria Grazia Cutuli, of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the two papers said.

Backed by U.S. bombardment, the northern alliance swept the Taliban out of northern Afghanistan last week and seized the capital, Kabul. The Taliban hold also fell apart in the south, where local leaders took control of many areas. The only major cities still in the Islamic militia's hands are Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south.

In Kabul, television resumed broadcasting Sunday night with three hours of readings from the Quran, Islam's holy book; news and cartoons. The Taliban had banned television under their strict version of Islamic law.

American officials said bin Laden, the top suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, was running out of places to hide.

"We think that the more that we are stripping away his protection ... that we're beginning to narrow his possibilities for hiding," National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told CNN's "Late Edition."

Sunday brought progress toward arranging a U.N.-brokered conference between Afghanistan's many and often sharply divided factions on forming a power-sharing government.

The head of the northern alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, had wanted the meeting to take place in Kabul. But after meeting U.S. envoy James F. Dobbins in Uzbekistan, the alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah, said the meeting "will be held outside Afghanistan," possibly this week.

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.

Franscesc Vendrell, the deputy to the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, met prominent Afghan figures in Kabul. However, many other factions don't have a presence in the capital.

The alliance faction headed by Rabbani, who was once the Afghan president and has never dropped his claim to be head of state, controls Kabul. The United Nations wants a conference held on neutral ground, out from under the shadow of alliance domination.

The alliance is made up mainly of ethnic minorities, and the United Nations is pressing it to share power with Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and formerly the backbone of the Taliban movement. Also, the five factions that make up the alliance have their own bitter rivalries.

In western Afghanistan, alliance officials showed journalists a mass grave near Shindand military airport that they said contained the bodies of 27 anti-Taliban fighters massacred by the Taliban before the Islamic militia fled the city last week.

In Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, a delegation of tribal leaders was trying to negotiate a transfer of power, Afghan sources in neighboring Pakistan said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The report could not be independently confirmed. The Taliban has denied earlier reports that it was planning to abandon the city.