KABUL, Afghanistan -- In a convoy of vehicles with his picture plastered on the windshields, the Afghan president ousted five years ago by the Taliban returned Saturday to the capital to reclaim his post. His return raised worries over the effort to build a broad-based, post-Taliban government.
The Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, meanwhile, said Osama bin Laden had left Afghanistan, but U.S. officials were skeptical of the claim. The envoy later gave a different version, saying bin Laden had left the rapidly shrinking portion of Afghanistan still under Taliban control.
The Taliban also confirmed that bin Laden's military chief, Mohammed Atef, was killed in a U.S. bombing raid three days ago.
Also Saturday, a reported deal with local leaders for the Taliban to leave their main bastion, Kandahar, fell through because some Taliban commanders did not want to abandon the southern city. In the north, U.S jets struck around Kunduz, the only other city still held by the Taliban.
As the Taliban struggled to maintain a hold around Kandahar, the deposed president, Burhanud-din Rabbani, entered Kabul four days after his Jamiat-e-Islami fighters -- the biggest faction in the alliance -- captured the city.
Rabbani, who was last in Kabul when he was ousted by the Taliban in 1996, arrived in a jeep with blackened windows, part of a convoy of 15 vehicles that included representatives of other factions in the northern alliance. The vehicles were festooned with pictures of Rabbani and slain alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massood, who was mortally injured in September by a suicide bomber.
Rabbani has never relinquished his claim to the presidency, though he has acknowledged the international calls for a broad-based government that would include all of Afghanistan's ethnic groups.
The alliance is made up largely of Tajiks like Rabbani, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities. The country's largest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, who served as the backbone of the Taliban's harsh five-year regime.
On Saturday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan reiterated the importance of creating a broad-based government accepted by all of Afghanistan's diverse political and ethnic groups.
''If they do not do that, and one group tries to control power and assert itself, it is going to be a problem down the line,'' he said in Ottawa after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. ''And I would hope that Mr. Rabbani also is aware of this happening since he knows intimately the history of his own country.''
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that the United States has been pressuring the northern alliance to share power with other factions and to let the U.N. oversee assembly of a new government. U.S. officials are in the region and in direct contact with the alliance, he said.
Rabbani's foreign minister, Abdullah, told a news conference Saturday that the northern alliance remained committed to forming a multiethnic government, including Pashtuns, ''the sooner the better.''
But it appeared that Rabbani's followers intended to enter such negotiations from a position of strength as the de facto rulers of this country. Rabbani invited all Afghan groups except the Taliban to a meeting to discuss formation of a new government, but insisted that it be held in Kabul.
The United Nations has been pressing to hold the meeting on neutral ground, and the Bush administration urged the alliance to drop the demand for Kabul as a venue, a U.S. official said in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A State Department official said Saturday that the administration remained hopeful the alliance will accept the U.N. request for a meeting outside Afghanistan early in the week.
The United States and its allies fear that a government dominated by Rabbani's movement would trigger the kind of factional conflict that destroyed much of the capital during Rabbani's tenure, from 1992 to 1996.
To try to stave off such a scenario, U.N. envoy Francesc Vendrell arrived in Kabul on Saturday to help work out a plan for a new Afghan government.
As he returned from Afghanistan through the Chaman border post Saturday night, Zaeef, the Taliban envoy, said bin Laden had fled the country.
''Osama has left Afghanistan with his children and his wives, and we have no idea where he has gone,'' Zaeef told The Associated Press.
The claim could not be independently confirmed, and Zaeef gave a different version to local reporters, saying bin Laden had left the rapidly shrinking portion of Afghanistan still under Taliban control.
He also told the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera and the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press that he did not know bin Laden's whereabouts.
Since the start of the confrontation over bin Laden -- the top suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States -- the Taliban have repeatedly issued contradictory statements about his whereabouts and their degree of contact with him.
Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said the U.S. military had no evidence bin Laden left Afghanistan. He said the Taliban could be trying to misdirect the hunt for bin Laden to protect him.
''Our search continues,'' Flood said Saturday.
Perhaps bin Laden's best option would be to try to cross the Afghan-Pakistan border. Long and porous, the frontier is jammed with refugees, and Pakistan is home to militant groups sympathetic to bin Laden and his Taliban allies.
In other developments:
n The U.S. Central Command said an errant U.S. bomb damaged a mosque in the town of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, on Friday, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It said it did not know of any casualties.
n Up to 10 French Mirage 2000 warplanes will attack strongholds of bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network in missions beginning in the next two weeks, France's defense minister said Saturday.
n A notebook, including detailed plans of various terrorist attacks in Turkish language, has been found in a camp in Jalalabad deserted by al-Qaida, media reports in Turkey said Saturday. The seizure was the first sign that terrorists from Turkey or those who speak fluent Turkish were trained in the ranks of al-Qaida along with Arabs and several other foreign nationals, private CNN-Turk television said.
n Pashtun tribal leaders reached agreement Saturday on a new administration for Jalalabad and surrounding Nangarhar province, defusing tension which arose after the Taliban withdrew from the area.
A day after U.S. military officials disclosed the probable death of Atef, the military chief in bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network, confirmation came from a senior Taliban official.
Mullah Najibullah, a Taliban leader in the southeast Afghan border town of Spinboldak, said seven other al-Qaida members were killed with Atef but did not identify the location of the airstrike.
Atef's death is seen as a serious setback to al-Qaida. He was suspected of helping plan the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Atef was a close confidant of bin Laden, and his daughter was married to bin Laden's son. He was often seen next to bin Laden in photographs and videotapes taken in Afghanistan in recent years.
Meanwhile, the Taliban's hold on Kandahar, appeared in doubt after the Afghan Islamic Press reported Friday night that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Moham-med Omar had agreed to leave the city within 24 hours and head for the mountains.
The move would allow the Taliban to give up control of the city to Pashtuns who have a good working relationship with the group, rather than risk the city being overrun by hostile forces.
However, there was no sign late Saturday of any Taliban withdrawal. Afghan sources, contacted by telephone from Pakistan, said both the pro and anti-Taliban camps were divided.
Some of Omar's commanders were willing to leave but others wanted to stay and fight, the sources said on condition of anonymity. Anti-Taliban Pashtuns were divided over who would run the city if the Islamic militia leaves.
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