Anti-Taliban forces close in on Kandahar

Saturday, December 1, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Anti-Taliban tribesmen said they seized tanks and heavy weapons Friday from Taliban militiamen who gave up without a fight near the airport outside Kandahar. An American general said the battle will go on until the Taliban stronghold is a "free city."

American troops raised a New York City flag over their base some 70 miles from Kandahar to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. The orange-white-and-blue flag, given to the troops by city firefighters, flew beneath the American flag on a bamboo pole.

As tribal fighters backed by U.S. airstrikes closed in on Kandahar -- the last Taliban-held city in Afghanistan -- talks in Germany on a post-Taliban government deadlocked.

Northern alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani said his envoys were being pressured to approve measures he disagreed with. His delegation in Germany said it had no authority to approve names for an interim governing council.

Ethnic Pashtun fighters loyal to tribal leader Kamel Uddin claimed they captured five Taliban tanks, four pickup trucks, one anti-aircraft gun and a multiple rocket launcher at a Taliban checkpoint near Kandahar's airport. The Pashtun are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group; many Taliban are Pashtun.

With the control of the Taliban -- who once held 90 percent of Afghanistan -- reduced to an area around Kandahar, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that the situation could be getting more dangerous for U.S. troops.

Friend or foe?

"As the size of the Taliban real estate diminishes, the danger to coalition forces may actually be increasing," Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon. That is largely because shifting allegiances and growing chaos make it hard to distinguish friend from foe.

Still, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "this fight will continue until Kandahar is, in fact, a free city, as is the rest of Afghanistan."

Reports of fighting in the south could not be independently verified because the Taliban refuse to allow Western reporters into their territory.

However, taxi and bus drivers arriving in the capital, Kabul, from Kandahar confirmed fighting in the 1 1/2-mile strip between the airport and the Kandahar city limits.

"That area is a no-man's land," said taxi driver Pacha. "There is fighting. We can't go there."

Pace acknowledged that tribal and Taliban officials were negotiating the surrender of the city. But Rumsfeld underlined that the United States would not accept any deal that gives the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar amnesty or safe passage.

From all directions

A former Kandahar governor, Gul Agha, who was forced from power by the Taliban in the 1990s, had a force of about 3,000 fighters moving on Kandahar from the south and southeast in alliance with Uddin, Jabbar said.

At the same time, another tribal group led by Hamid Karzai is moving on Kandahar from the north, according to Karzai's brother Ahmed in Quetta, Pakistan. However, Karzai's forces are believed to be more than 60 miles north of the city.

Ahmed Karzai said his brother had hoped to convince Mullah Omar to abandon Kandahar and spare the city a bloody showdown.

"Negotiations alone are not going to work," he said. "So we have to put pressure on them."

It was far from certain, however, that Kandahar will fall quickly.

One tribal figure, Mohammed Anwar, said 300 Arab fighters loyal to bin Laden were pushing north in an attempt to attack Agha's forces from the rear. The Arabs were moving along the main road from Spinboldak to the village of Takhta Pul, about 25 miles southwest of Kandahar.

Airstrikes stepped up

U.S. jets, meanwhile, stepped up airstrikes against Taliban positions around the airport early Friday, according to travelers reaching Pakistan. They said targets included the city's Baba Sahib district, where Omar maintains a residence.

In other developments:

Japan's Parliament approved the deployment of 1,200 sailors on a mission to provide non-combat support for the U.S.-led campaign.

A U.N. spokesman said Iran has broken a promise and forcibly deported several thousand of the estimated 2 million Afghan refugees there in recent days. Yusuf Hassan said Pakistan also has forcibly sent about 300 refugees back to Afghanistan recently.

Russia announced plans to open a hospital and a center for coordinating humanitarian aid in Kabul on Saturday.

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