Tribal force says it began major assault

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Tribal warriors claimed to be making a major assault on Taliban forces defending Kandahar's airport Saturday night as thousands more fighters from another anti-Taliban faction headed toward the city from the north.

In Germany, negotiations for a post-Taliban government saw progress when the northern alliance reversed itself and submitted nominees to serve on an interim administration alongside three other factions. It also said it no longer opposed international peacekeepers, if the force was set up by the United Nations.

South of Kandahar, U.S. jets pounded Taliban positions around the airport incessantly, refugees from the embattled militia's last stronghold said. Some told of increasingly desperate Taliban soldiers moving from house to house, trying to hide among civilians from the fury of American airstrikes.

"People think it's just like doomsday. They're in a terrible situation," said one refugee, Mohebullah, who arrived in the Pakistani border town of Chaman on Saturday.

More than 1,000 U.S. Marines dug in at a desert base about 70 miles southwest of Kandahar stayed out of the battle, a senior officer at the base said on condition of anonymity.

In the capital, Kabul, the northern alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah, told reporters he believes Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants in the al-Qaida network are hiding in one of three provinces around Kandahar -- Uruzgan, Zabul or Helmand.

U.S. officials have said the search for bin Laden, accused by Washington of masterminding the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is focusing on the Kandahar area and al-Qaida's Tora Bora base in eastern Afghanistan.

There were conflicting accounts about U.S. bombs hitting villages late Friday and Saturday in eastern Afghanistan.

Villagers said 150 to 250 civilians were killed. Provincial officials also said U.S. planes struck the villages, although they put the death toll much lower. An American spokesman in Washington said U.S. planes attacked a nearby military target but denied any bombs hit the villages.

A day after being at an impasse, the Afghan talks outside Bonn, Germany, seemed close to an accord after the change in position by the northern alliance.

The alliance, which has chased the Taliban from much of northern Afghanistan appeared to cave in under intense pressure from the United Nations and the United States. Washington has promised extensive aid if the Afghan factions agree to govern together.

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