Taliban cede northern stronghold

Friday, November 23, 2001

BANGI, Afghanistan -- Taliban commanders agreed Thursday to let northern alliance troops into their last stronghold in northern Afghanistan to oversee a surrender of the besieged city of Kunduz, anti-Taliban officials said.

Alliance fighters, apparently unaware of the breakthrough, launched a chaotic offensive outside Kunduz just as details of the agreement emerged. Fighters attacked Taliban positions east of Kunduz with rocket launchers, artillery and tanks. Commanders said they also pushed toward the airport.

In Washington, Marine Lt. Col. Dave LaPan, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday that 75 U.S. aircraft struck Taliban military forces, tunnels and caves over the previous 24 hours, concentrating on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the south and the Jalalabad area in the east.

Under the purported deal for the surrender of Kunduz, reached during negotiations in the alliance-held city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghan fighters would be allowed to leave city, the alliance said.

Arabs, Pakistanis and other foreign fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden would be placed in camps until the alliance and the U.S.-led coalition can decide what to do with them, alliance officials in Tajikistan said. The United States has insisted that suspected al-Qaida members not be allowed to go free as part of any deal.

Alliance spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said the alliance would send 5,000 fighters to Kunduz "possibly Saturday" to oversee the Taliban surrender. Both sides agreed to meet Friday in Mazar-e-Sharif to finalize details, Nadeem said.

The Taliban representatives, including Deputy Defense Minister Mullah Fazil Muslimyar, returned to Kunduz late Thursday to explain the deal to the foreigners.

Alliance fighters said they feared the foreign fighters -- thought to number up to 3,000 -- might try to break out of the city and escape to Uzbekistan or Pakistan rather than accept surrender.

The issue of the foreign fighters had been the main stumbling block to an agreement to surrender the city, which the Taliban militia held on to after their control of the north collapsed following the loss of Mazar-e-Sharif on Nov. 9. The foreigners feared a repeat of the summary executions that followed the alliance's takeover of Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul.

In Geneva, the international Red Cross said Thursday it had recovered 400 to 600 bodies in Mazar-e-Sharif but would not say whether they were killed in fighting or executed.

Safety assurance

A senior alliance commander, Atta Mohammed, said he assured the Taliban that none of their troops would be mistreated.

A spokesman for the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan, Shamsulkhak Orienfard, said the foreigners would be placed in "filtration camps" and "their fate will be decided by the legal government of Afghanistan and countries of the international anti-terrorism coalition."

Reports of massacres of Pakistanis and other foreign fighters have raised alarm in Pakistan, a key Muslim ally in the anti-terrorism campaign.

Although Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf supports the campaign, the government believes it cannot remain silent while its own citizens are massacred even if it opposes their cause.

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