Anti-Taliban forces besiege Kanduz

Friday, November 23, 2001

Associated Press WriterBANGI, Afghanistan (AP) -- After the heaviest fighting in 10 days, anti-Taliban forces kept Kunduz tightly encircled Friday while commanders from both sides discussed the final details of a surrender by the Islamic militia.

The Taliban representatives to the talks, including Deputy Defense Minister Mullah Fazil Muslimyar, took word of the surrender deal back to their fighters in Kunduz and returned Friday to the talks in Mazar-e-Sharif, the other major city in northern Afghanistan, to finalize details, a northern alliance commander said.

Gen. Rashid Dostum, who commands the ethnic Uzbek forces in the alliance, told The Associated Press he would meet again with the Taliban commanders Saturday, and that expected them to surrender Sunday and deliver foreigners fighting alongside the Taliban into the hands of the alliance.

"Tomorrow we will have another meeting to work out the details of the handover," he said. "On Sunday the Taliban should surrender to us and hand over the prisoners."

Fighting that raged on Thursday after a 10-day lull all but stopped Friday, apparently as word of the impending Taliban surrender of their last northern stronghold filtered back to the front line.

The front lines remained unchanged Friday, and only the crackle of small arms rang out in the no-man's land between Taliban and alliance positions. Tanks that had advanced closer to Kunduz pulled back, and some alliance troops marched back to their bases.

A Taliban spokesman in Kunduz told the Afghan Islamic Press that dozens of people were killed in U.S. bombing in the area Friday. The report by the private Pakistan-based news agency could not be confirmed.

In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said Thursday that U.S. aircraft were targeting Taliban military forces, tunnels and caves, especially in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in the south and the Jalalabad area in the east.

An alliance commander said the Taliban and the alliance were finalizing the logistics of a surrender in Kunduz at Friday's talks. Alliance spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said the deal called for 5,000 alliance fighters to enter Kunduz to oversee the surrender.

"Our troops are on the way to Kunduz," Dostum said Friday evening.

According to anti-Taliban commanders, the deal would give Taliban fighters from Afghanistan free passage out of Kunduz, but would imprison the thousands of Arabs, Pakistanis and other foreign fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden who are with them.

"They have agreed to hand over the foreign fighters to us. That is settled," Dostum said.

Those foreigners would be placed in camps until the alliance and the U.S.-led coalition can deal with them, alliance officials said. But one alliance commander ruled out turning the foreigners over to international courts.

"These foreigners have committed criminal acts in our country. We will not hand them over to the United Nations or any other country. They will go on trial in Afghanistan, in our Islamic courts," said Daoud Khan, a senior commander in the Kunduz area.

The United States has insisted that suspected members of bin Laden's al-Qaida network not be allowed to go free as part of any deal. Many of the foreigners in Kunduz are believed to have ties to al-Qaida.

Statements by front-line commanders Friday indicated the depths of their hatred for the foreign fighters -- and the uncertain future that could await those fighters if they surrender.

"If they surrender to the northern alliance, we will kill them all. They invaded Afghanistan," an officer named Amanullah said.

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 Committee of the 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.

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

A U.S.-led coalition launched attacks on the Taliban in early October for their refusal to hand over bin Laden, the main suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Aided by the bombing, the northern alliance swept the Islamic militia out of almost all the north and took Kabul, the capital, on Nov. 13.

A surrender in Kunduz would leave only one major city -- the southern base of Kandahar -- in Taliban hands. Taliban spokesman Syed Tayyab Agha has vowed that the Taliban would fight to defend Kandahar, their spiritual base, and the surrounding provinces they still control.

In other developments:

--The Taliban denied reports that its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had fled to the mountains and left a deputy in charge in Kandahar, the Afghan Islamic Press reported. The private Pakistan-based news agency quoted Agha, the Taliban spokesman.

--The United States continued to drop food and blankets Thursday and publicize reward money of up to $25 million, offered for information leading to the capture of bin Laden.

--Efforts continued to arrange power-sharing talks for a post-Taliban government next week in Bonn, Germany. Afghanistan's exiled former monarch will send two women and six others reflecting the country's varied ethnic makeup to the talks, the king's grandson said.

--British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw traveled to Pakistan to shore up support for a broad-based government to replace the Taliban. He met Friday in Islamabad with Musharraf and with Francesc Vendrell, the U.N.'s deputy envoy to Afghanistan, to discuss forging an interim government for Afghanistan.

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