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

Friday, December 7, 2001

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. forces were firing on Taliban fighters as they fled their last stronghold in Afghanistan Friday, and American officials did not know the whereabouts of the Taliban's top leader, 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. He said American forces were blocking Taliban fighters with strikes from airplanes, helicopters and "with direct fire from the ground."

However, the fate of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was unclear, Franks said from Tampa, Fla., in a teleconference with reporters there and at the Pentagon.

"We continue to work on the area around Kandahar and we simply do not know where he is right now," Franks said. He said U.S. officials had made it clear to interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai that America wants "to be sure that we have no opportunity to have the senior Taliban leadership having a negative influence on the stability we are working for in Afghanistan."

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.

Franks said he had not ruled out the possibility of U.S. Marines' entering Kandahar. About 1,500 Marines at a base near Kandahar had been involved in several fights in the air and on the ground in the past day, Franks said. In one of those fights, Marines destroyed a convoy of Taliban and al-Qaida members that tried to run a roadblock outside Kandahar Friday.

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 Karzai.

"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.

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