KABUL, Afghanistan -- Taliban forces began handing in their weapons in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar today as part of a surrender deal with opposition forces, according to a Pakistan-based news service close to the Islamic militia.
The report, by the Afghan Islamic Press, could not be independently verified immediately.
The Taliban agreed Thursday to surrender Kandahar, their last bastion and birthplace, if their warriors were not punished and safety was guaranteed to leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who once vowed to fight to the death.
American officials have said the United States would not accept any deal allowing the cleric to go free.
Personal rivalries among anti-Taliban leaders and the fate of Omar still could wreck the fragile agreement. The head of the new Afghan transition government, Hamid Karzai, refused to say whether Omar would be arrested as Washington has demanded.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States would not stand for any agreement that lets the Taliban leader go free and "live in dignity."
Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said radio intercepts had picked up no communications by Omar in three days and that he appeared to have lost contact with senior Taliban commanders.
"It seems that the final collapse of the Taliban is now upon us," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush's closest ally in the war. "That is a total vindication of the strategy that we have worked out from the beginning."
The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan seemed to agree. When asked about the future of the movement, Salam Zaeef said: "I think we should go home."
No mention of bin Laden
The murky surrender pact made no mention of Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and left unclear the fate of hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreign fighters of his al-Qaida terrorist network.
After briefing members of the Senate on the situation in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld was asked whether the United States would insist on U.S. justice or would agree to let an international tribunal deal with Omar.
"We would prefer to have Omar," Rumsfeld replied. He said "There's still a good deal of confusion" surrounding the surrender.
Karzai, however, said the United States had not been consulted.
"This is an Afghan question," told the BBC.
In eastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, B-52s hammered suspected mountain hide-outs of bin Laden and his fighters. About 1,500 anti-Taliban forces have been attacking the region around the Tora Bora compound for two days.
In Washington, U.S. officials said al-Qaida fighters are believed operating from five to 10 cave complexes at Tora Bora in the White Mountains south of Jalalabad. Officials suspect bin Laden is in that area but also are on alert for his presence in the south around Kandahar.
Southwest of that city, U.S. Marines went on alert and fired mortars and flares into the desert from their base after detecting what a spokesman said "appears to be a credible threat."
A UHN-1 Huey helicopter crashed near the airstrip at Camp Rhino, and Marine spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton said two servicemen received minor injuries, one of them on the ground. The cause of the crash was under investigation, but Upton said, "We are 99 percent sure that the helicopter did not crash because of enemy fire."
Many of the unconfirmed details of the surrender agreement came from Zaeef who said a former guerrilla leader from the war against the Soviets, Mullah Naqib Ullah, would take control of Kandahar within days.
"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, explaining the cleric's dramatic shift from earlier vows to defend his movement's home city until death.
Karzai said the Taliban also agreed to give up provinces surrounding Kandahar which had remained under their control. The Taliban never held sway over all Afghanistan, but before U.S. bombing began Oct. 7, the militant militia held 90 percent of the country.
Under the withering U.S. air attacks in support of the northern alliance, the Taliban abandoned most of their ground, retreating to Kandahar and neighboring provinces. Bush launched the attacks after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden.
Differences over the surrender deal among anti-Taliban forces arose as quickly as the fuzzy details of the agreement were made public.
Zaeef said the surrender called for Omar to live in Kandahar under the protection of the new local administration, which apparently prompted the negative response from Rumsfeld.
Karzai sought to avoid any discussion of Omar's fate, telling The Associated Press that such issues "are the details that we still have to work out."
"I'm not saying anything right now," he said. He refused to say whether Omar would face arrest.
Another anti-Pashtun leader, Gul Agha, was angered over being left out of the negotiations, according to his spokesman, Abdul Jabbar. The spokesman said Agha would not agree to any role for Naqib Ullah because he was "an ally of the Taliban."
The nature of the apparent threat that put the Marine base on alert was unclear. The lights were cut after officers detected what Capt. David Romley said "appears to be a credible threat."
"It could be possible probing by the enemy," said Capt. Stewart Upton, another spokesman. Then again, he said: "We don't know that anything is going on."
Since the Marines seized the desert airstrip on Nov. 25, their only combat operation came on their second day, when Cobra helicopter gunships from the base helped warplanes from elsewhere attack a suspected hostile convoy that passed nearby.
After weeks of incessant bombing around Kandahar, U.S. warplanes were quiet Thursday. It wasn't clear if the lull was ordered to facilitate the surrender negotiations or because of a stray bomb that killed three U.S. servicemen and wounded 20 others in the area a day earlier.