U.S. forces firing on Taliban fighters as they flee Kandahar

Friday, December 7, 2001

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. forces Friday were firing on Taliban forces as they fled their last stronghold in Afghanistan, the commander of the campaign said.

"We have engaged forces who are leaving Kandahar with their weapons," Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks told a news conference.

Asked if American forces were in pursuit or just blocking those fleeing, Franks said: "We are blocking.

"We are blocking in some cases from the air, we are blocking in some cases with direct fire from the ground," he said from Tampa, Fla., during a teleconference with reporters there and at the Pentagon.

Asked whether Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had left the city with his troops, Franks said: "As I stand here I do not have reason to believe that Omar has in fact escaped Kandahar." He added: "We simply do not know right know where Omar is."

Marines destroyed a convoy of Taliban and al-Qaida members that tried to run a roadblock outside Kandahar earlier Friday, but Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said she didn't know whether the convoy was fleeing the city or going in, possibly as reinforcements.

Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai said the Taliban had reneged on a deal to surrender their weapons and instead fled the city with their arms. He said Omar was missing -- a characterization Franks disputed.

Clarke said the Pentagon had intelligence reports on the general region where Omar was believed to be but declined to say where it is.

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.

U.S. officials had warned Afghan opposition groups Thursday that American support will be cut off if they let Omar go free.

Following reports that the Taliban were ready to give up Kandahar, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday any deal must include bringing Omar to justice. Omar's Taliban sheltered Sept. 11 terror suspect Osama bin Laden when the radical Islamic militia controlled most of Afghanistan.

"If you're asking, would an arrangement with Omar, where he could, quote, 'live in dignity' in the Kandahar area or some place in Afghanistan be consistent with what I have said, the answer is no," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.

The Taliban began surrendering Kandahar, the last city under their control, on Friday. Two months of continuous U.S. bombing and advances by opposition forces drove them from most of the country.

"The Taliban is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan," said Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai. He said that Omar is missing and would be arrested if he's found.

"I have no idea where Mullah Omar is, but of course I want to arrest him. I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time as run out," Karzai said.

Karzai, who was slightly wounded by the errant U.S. bomb that killed three American soldiers and six Afghans on Wednesday, had earlier refused to say whether he would offer or has offered amnesty to Omar.

If Omar is not killed in the fighting, the United States would "strongly prefer" that he be captured and handed over to the Americans, Rumsfeld said.

The anti-Taliban forces have gotten the message, said Haron Amin, the Washington representative of the northern alliance of Afghan opposition groups.

"It has been communicated to us that if we arrange a peace plan that allows for the release of Omar, Karzai would lose support from America, and the northern alliance would lose the support of the coalition," he said.

The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan will not end once Kandahar falls, Rumsfeld said. Pockets of resistance remain, and bin Laden still has not been found.

"It would be premature to suggest that once Kandahar surrenders that, therefore, we kind of relax and say, 'Well, that takes care of that,' because it doesn't," Rumsfeld said.

In their first offensive ground action, American Marines attacked a Taliban convoy near Kandahar on Friday, killing seven fighters, a Marines spokesman in southern Afghanistan said. No Marines were injured in the action.

American warplanes and special operations troops have started helping Afghans who are fighting al-Qaida forces near cave and tunnel complexes in the mountains south of Jalalabad, a top Pentagon official said Thursday. Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in the area.

U.S. troops working with opposition fighters are relaying information about suspected hide-outs or al-Qaida troop concentrations to warplanes above, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace said. The pilots are using that information to target their satellite-guided bombs, said Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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