Opposition closes in on Kunduz

International journalists feared dead after gunmen ambush their convoy

Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2001

BANGI, Afghanistan -- The battle for the Taliban's last northern stronghold of Kunduz intensified Monday, and international negotiators reportedly agreed to meet this weekend in Germany to discuss forming a new broad-based Afghan government.

More signs of normalcy took hold in the capital, Kabul, as television returned to the air and a movie theater reopened -- both were shut down during the ousted Taliban's harsh five-year rule. But four foreign journalists were missing in Afghanistan and feared dead after gunmen ambushed their convoy.

Working on the critical issue of stabilizing the tribally fractured country, negotiators reported progress in persuading Afghan-istan's major ethnic groups to work together on forming a government. No date or place for talks has been announced, but a Pakistani diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a meeting would begin Saturday, possibly in Berlin.

The United Nations is urging Afghan-istan's ethnic groups to attend that meeting, U.N. officials and diplomats said in New York late Monday.

They said Lakhdar Brahimi, the top U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, met privately late Monday in New York with the major Security Council members and was expected to announce the meeting would take place Saturday in Berlin.

The United Nations said that the victorious northern alliance has not yet formally accepted Secretary-General Kofi Annan's invitation to an all-parties conference. However, alliance leaders have assured U.S. officials they will take part.

A Brahimi deputy is in Kabul to urge Afghan groups to attend.

''There is really a hunger for peace,'' James F. Dobbins, the U.S. envoy to the alliance, said in Pakistan after meeting its leaders near Kabul.

''There's a willingness to compromise,'' he told reporters. ''There's a recognition that the international situation is transformed.''

Alliance leaders asked the United Nations to find representatives from the Pashtuns, the ethnic group most closely linked to the Taliban, to attend the talks. The alliance consists mainly of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras; the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, may not accept a new government unless they play a major role.

Dobbins said he was convinced the movement was committed to giving the Pashtuns a role.

More U.S. commandos joined the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other terrorist suspects in southern Afghanistan, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. Several hundred members of special forces units already were on the ground, and U.S. officials reminded local tribesmen of the $25 million reward for finding bin Laden.

The war, meanwhile, raged on. U.S. bombing moved closer to the encircled city of Kunduz, and alliance artillery joined in what appeared to be the heaviest attacks at the front in days.

Alliance commanders continued to negotiate a surrender using two-way radios. But refugees who reached alliance lines recounted a defiant message from the foreign Muslims fighting in the city: ''We are going to be martyrs. We are not leaving Kunduz.''

Refugees said the foreigners -- mostly Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens -- were preventing Afghan Taliban fighters from surrendering. Refugees have reported that several hundred would-be Taliban defectors were shot by their own side.

Refugee Ahmed Wahid said the foreigners and hard-core Taliban in Kunduz had smeared their vehicles with mud to elude U.S. jets and were sleeping in relief agency offices to escape bombs.

Apparently readying for an attack on Kunduz, alliance tanks fired from ridges that had been held by the Taliban just a day earlier. Alliance soldiers moved into what had been no-man's land in a valley near the city.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld described fighting around Kunduz as fierce. He said he could not confirm reports of Taliban fighters being killed to prevent their surrender.

Rumsfeld said the Taliban also were under pressure to leave Kandahar, their bastion in the south.

''It is apparently at the moment still a standoff,'' he said of Kandahar. ''There are southern tribes that are applying pressure and engaged in discussions (with the Taliban), and there's firing and the U.S., coalition forces, are providing some air support.''

Rumsfeld said the United States would not let Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar escape from Kandahar, even if opposition leaders negotiated a deal to depart.

The four journalists were traveling from the eastern city of Jalalabad to Kabul when six armed men dragged them from their cars and fired on them, witnesses said.

Later, motorists told a local commander they had seen the bodies of three men and a woman lying by the road.

The four were two Reuters journalists -- Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan-born photographer -- together with Julio Fuentes of the Spanish daily El Mundo and Maria Grazia Cutuli of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, their news organizations said.

The ambush occurred in an area largely controlled by anti-Taliban forces. However, some Taliban stragglers and Arab fighters were still believed to be in the area.

Backed by U.S. bombardment, the northern alliance swept the Taliban out of northern Afghanistan last week and seized Kabul. The Taliban hold also fell apart in the south, where local leaders took control of many areas.

In other developments:

--In Jalalabad, the new anti-Taliban governor of Nangarhar province, Abdul Kadeer, offered to help US and British commandos search for bin Laden and al-Qaida fighters in the rugged mountains of his province. He said there were hundreds of Arab fighters holed up in the Tora-Bora camp in Nangarhar and he would be happy to help coalition forces root them out.

--In Kabul, where most forms of entertainment were banned during strict Taliban rule, television aired news, cartoons and three hours of readings from the Quran, Islam's holy book. The programs were introduced by Mariam Shekeba, whose broadcast career had been interrupted for five years because the Taliban barred women from showing their faces in public.

--About 60 French foreign legion troops were at the Khanabad air base in Uzbekistan, preparing to head to the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Commander Herve Fouilland said the French were working with Americans and Jordanians on a plan for restoring Mazar-e-Sharif's airstrip so aid supplies could be flown in.

The United States began its air strikes on the Taliban and bin Laden's Al-Qaida organization in response to the Sept. 11 suicide hijackings that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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