Afghan tribal leaders say they control part of key road leading to Taliban stronghold

Posted: Monday, November 26, 2001

CHAMAN, Pakistan -- Anti-Taliban tribal fighters in southern Afghanistan cut a key road leading to the Islamic militia's stronghold of Kandahar and were approaching the city, tribal leaders said Sunday.

Aided by U.S. warplanes, the fighters pushed back a Taliban force Saturday afternoon and seized part of the road between Kandahar and Spinboldak, on the border with Pakistan, said a leader, Abdul Jabbar.

There were conflicting reports of the number of dead, with one tribal official saying as many as 80 Taliban died.

Jabbar said tribal forces on Sunday night seized Toarkoter, an area three miles from Kandahar's airport. Taliban fighters briefly resisted before fleeing, he said.

The reports could not be independently confirmed because the Taliban have not allowed journalists to travel to Kandahar, their last major refuge after retreats from the capital, Kabul, and other big cities.

If true, the attack by tribal fighters would be one of their boldest since ethnic Pashtun leaders launched efforts weeks ago to persuade remaining Taliban commanders to surrender. It would also signal further erosion of Taliban power in the last areas under their control.

Most fighting in Afghanistan has been in the northern half of the country, with the northern alliance inflicting defeats on the Taliban with the help of U.S. bombing. The Taliban have traditionally drawn most of their support from Pashtun groups in the south.

In Pakistan on Sunday, a meeting of Pashtun tribal chiefs urged the Taliban to surrender Kandahar, and a northern alliance official in western Afghanistan reported that talks were underway in Kandahar for the city's handover.

Speaking in the Pakistani border town of Chaman, Jabbar said he learned about the fighting in satellite telephone conversations with commander Kamal Uddin, the leader of an anti-Taliban force inside Afghanistan.

Uddin said his forces seized 11 vehicles, including one mounted with a rocket launcher, from Taliban troops at Takhtapull, according to Jabbar. U.S. jets had bombed the Taliban before they confronted Uddin's soldiers, Jabbar said.

He said tribal fighters on the road later stopped a car carrying five Arabs, possibly pro-Taliban fighters who were affiliated with terror suspect Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaida network.

'''One of them got out of the car and pulled the pin out of a grenade. At that time, my squad opened fired and he was killed,''' Jabbar quoted Uddin as saying. The other four were detained.

Uddin is under the command of Gul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of Kandahar who entered Afghanistan from Pakistan earlier this month in order to stir up opposition to the Taliban.

Sherzai's brother, Bacha Agha, said eight Taliban died in the fighting Saturday.

However, the brother of another Pashtun leader in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, said as many as 80 Taliban bodies had been brought to Taliban-controlled Spinboldak. The brother, Ahmed, said Karzai's forces were also involved in the fighting. The report could not be independently verified.

The 70-mile road from Spinboldak to Kandahar had served as a Taliban supply route, and is a key route for traders from Pakistan.

Many residents have fled Kandahar, which has come under fierce bombardment since President Bush launched a military campaign Oct. 7 against the Taliban and bin Laden, chief suspect in the September terrorist attacks in the United States.

In Quetta on Sunday, dozens of Pashtun tribal chiefs from Afghanistan said at a meeting that they would send a delegation to the Taliban to urge them to surrender.

''They should get rid of the terrorist groups and leave the cities and give the power over to the tribal people,'' said a chief, Abdul Ahad.

In the western Afghan city of Herat, a northern alliance commander said the Taliban had begun talks over surrender of Kandahar as alliance forces prepared for a major attack on Helmand, to the west.

''There are some talks and negotiations going on there (in Kandahar) with the Taliban to surrender themselves,'' Gen Mohammed Zaer Azimi told reporters.

Azimi, a Shiite Muslim commander with the alliance in Herat, said clashes were continuing around Helmand on Sunday ahead of a major attack on the Taliban stronghold. It was not clear when the offensive was planned.

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