Taliban official says surrender of Kandahar to begin Friday

Thursday, December 6, 2001

Associated Press WriterISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) -- The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan said Thursday that the movement's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, agreed to surrender Kandahar to tribal leaders starting Friday.

Abdul Salam Zaeef said the handover would begin Friday and that Omar would be allowed to stay in the city under tribal protection.

A decision to hand over the southern city would mark a sharp change of course by Omar, who had called on the Taliban to fight to the death. "The fight has now begun. It is the best opportunity to achieve martyrdom," Omar told his commanders by radio last week, according to a Taliban official.

Taliban leaders had decided not to hand over their weapons to Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed head of a new interim government to rule the country for six months.

Instead, they will surrender to Mullah Naqib Ullah, a former guerrilla commander against Soviet occupation troops.

"We have agreed to surrender weapons not to Hamid Karzai but to tribal elders," Zaeef said. "Mullah Omar has taken the decision for the welfare of the people, to avoid casualties and to save the life and dignity of Afghans."

Zaeef said the Taliban was finished as a political movement. "I think we should go home," he said.

Karzai agreed to release all Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan and give them free passage home, Zaeef said. He said Omar had secured unspecified protection for himself.

"I don't know about the guarantees, but Hamid Karzai and the tribal leaders have promised him protection," Zaeef said.

In an earlier interview Thursday at his base 12 miles north of Kandahar, Karzai said that he was offering a general amnesty to Taliban fighters who surrender but not Omar. He had been meeting with Taliban officials for two days.

Speaking to The Associated Press by satellite telephone before Zaeef spoke, Karzai stressed that the amnesty offer applies only to the Taliban troops. Asked about reports he was offering amnesty to Omar, Karzai replied: "It's not true." The amnesty offer, he said, is for the soldiers, many of them young men from rural regions of southern Afghanistan, where his own Popolzai tribe is located.

Karzai, who is to take power on Dec. 22, leads a force of several thousand ethnic Pashtun tribesmen advancing on Kandahar from the north.

Zaeef said Omar's decision was in response to heavy U.S. bombing of Kandahar, and was intended to prevent more civilian deaths.

U.S. aircraft have been pounding the Kandahar area intensively for weeks to soften Taliban defenses and support Afghan fighters advancing on the city.

However, there was no bombing in the Kandahar area on Thursday. The pause could either have been to facilitate negotiations or possibly in response to Wednesday's accidental bombing of anti-Taliban forces in which three U.S. special forces troops and five Afghan fighters were killed.

Zaeef said Karzai agreed to Ullah's becoming governor of Kandahar. Ullah, a member of the Jamiat-e-Islami party of the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, led guerrilla forces against the Soviets in the 1980s and now leads one of several groups fighting the Taliban.

Previous deals to surrender Kandahar and other cities stalled over the issue of Arab, Pakistan and other foreign fighters loyal to alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters are believed in Kandahar, especially around the airport where they beat back assaults by tribal fighters under former Kandahar governor Gul Agha.

The United States has made clear it would not support any deal which allowed bin Laden or his lieutenants to escape prosecution. The Americans blame bin Laden for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has also insisted that Mullah Omar should not be allowed to go free.

Zaeef said he was proud of what the Taliban have done in Afghanistan.

"We have done a lot for the welfare of the people," he said. "In every village, mosque, home and province there is a Talib."

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