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Taliban flee Kandahar; Omar's whereabouts uncertain
Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Taliban forces abandoned their last bastion Kandahar on Friday, with witnesses saying joyous residents poured into the streets and tore down the Taliban white flag. Afghanistan's interim leader said Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was missing and would be arrested if found.
Elsewhere, U.S. Marines killed seven Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who were fleeing Kandahar in what was their first ground combat in Afghanistan. And in the mountainous east, fierce fighting and heavy U.S. bombing raged around Tora Bora, a cave hide-out occupied by al-Qaida fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden.
"The Taliban rule is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan," Hamid Karzai, the new head of the U.N.-backed provisional government, said in a satellite telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Fleeing Taliban fighters backed out of a deal to hand in weapons to another opposition tribal leader, Karzai said from a desert base outside the southern city.
"The Taliban ran away with their weapons," he said. "Basically they have just run away. The leaders and the soldiers. They have all run away from the city."
Some residents, however, maintained that weapons were handed in by departing Taliban fighters.
Witnesses said overjoyed residents poured into the streets carrying pictures of Afghanistan's deposed king. Others tore down the Taliban's white flag in favor of Afghanistan's old royal red, black and green ensign. Looting and gunfire were reported in some parts.
Karzai said Omar's whereabouts were unknown.
"But, of course, I want to arrest him," he said. "I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time has run out. He is an absconder, a fugitive from justice."
Karzai and a Pakistani intelligence source who spoke on condition of anonymity said they believe Omar and what's left of the Taliban and allied foreign fighters of al-Qaida headed for mountain hide-outs in Zabul province northeast of Kandahar.
After a surrender deal had been reached with the Taliban on Thursday, Karzai refused to say what would happen to Omar. That drew a sharp response from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said Washington was prepared to re-evaluate its relationship with anti-Taliban groups who allow Omar to escape punishment.
On Friday, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said he was confident the new Afghan authorities would capture Omar.
"At some point in the reasonable future ... he will be in the hands of the opposition. And, at that point, we hope to be able to cooperate to bringing him to justice," said Kenton Keith, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.
The murky surrender pact made no mention of bin Laden or the hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreign fighters who follow him.
On Friday, Karzai promised to capture foreign al-Qaida fighters and bring them to trial.
In eastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, opposition commanders said tribal warriors captured two caves Thursday but retreated after finding them abandoned by al-Qaida fighters who had lived there with their wives and children.
Al-Qaida forces and their families were thought to be sheltering in other caves, said Haji Musa, the brother-in-law of provincial military chief Hazrat Ali.
"We don't have any confirmed information about Osama bin Laden, but his son is still in the caves," he said, adding that tribesmen were within 500 yards of al-Qaida units as warplanes roared overhead.
In the desert around Kandahar, U.S. Marines searched for Taliban stragglers. On Thursday night, one "hunter-Killer" Marine patrol confronted a three-car enemy convoy and responded by calling in air and ground attacks.
Seven Taliban and al-Qaida fighters were killed in what was the Marines' first offensive ground action in Afghanistan, said a Marine spokesman, Capt. David Romley. No U.S. personnel were injured.
The Taliban began surrendering Kandahar on Friday after two months of U.S. airstrikes and advances by opposition forces that drove them from most of the country. A day earlier, they had agreed to leave the city provided regular fighters received amnesty and Omar's safety was guaranteed.
Their hasty departure, similar to their abandonment of other Afghan cities in recent weeks, came despite earlier pledges to defend Kandahar to the death.
Karzai confirmed that chaos had broken out in several areas within Kandahar as a result of Taliban flight. He said there was no fighting among rival forces.
However, frightened residents reported skirmishes among armed gangs. Speaking by satellite telephone from the city, one resident said armed unidentified men had set up checkpoints on some main roads.
"It's quite chaotic," said the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are scared that the situation could really get out of hand."
On Friday, Karzai said he has set up a tribal commission that will go to Kandahar to take control of the city within a day or so.
In the meantime, Taliban personnel were returning to their homes, said Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, who defected from the Taliban to join the opposition northern alliance.
------EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press correspondents Christopher Torchia in Quetta, Pakistan, and Chris Tomlinson in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.