Fighting rages; Afghan factions move forward on government talks

Posted: Tuesday, December 04, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Tribal fighters battled the Taliban at Kandahar airport Monday, and U.S. warplanes pounded the city and suspected terrorist hideouts along the Pakistan border. Afghan factions meeting in Germany adopted a framework for ruling the country.

B-52s unloaded bombs on positions thought to be a sanctuary to Osama bin Laden in the Jalalabad region. Journalists visited flattened villages in the area, and anti-Taliban officials said the U.S. air strikes appear to have been misdirected, killing scores of civilians. A senior Pentagon official called the reports ''suspect.''

U.S. warplanes also targeted the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in Kandahar, the last militia stronghold. Fida Mohammed, a farmer who fled the city to Pakistan on Monday, said planes bombed one of Omar's homes Sunday night, but the Taliban had abandoned the building.

At the talks in Koenigswinter, Germany, on forming a post-Taliban administration, the four factions agreed early Tuesday on the framework, making speedy progress after the United States pressured the northern alliance to drop obstacles that had threatened to derail the talks.

In a night of hectic diplomacy, a White House official, Zalmay Khalilzad, telephoned northern alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul, winning a promise to release a long-delayed list of candidates for the interim administration, said U.S. envoy James F. Dobbins said.

With the list finally on the table, delegations representing the northern alliance, exiles loyal to former King Mohammad Zaher Shah and two smaller exile groups quickly finalized the text of an agreement establishing a 29-member interim governing council, U.N. spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

In the north of Afghanistan, U.S. special forces took custody of a wounded Taliban fighter who identified himself as John Walker of Washington, D.C. A coalition spokesman said it was too early to speculate on the man's fate. Two other people who claim to be Americans are under the control of the northern alliance, a defense official in Washington said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the battle for Kandahar, another anti-Taliban tribal force bore down on the city from the north. Hamid Karzai was at the head of 4,000 troops advancing quickly and said to have reached the town of Khakrez 18 miles away.

Along their route, the troops claimed to be winning over residents as Taliban fighters surrendered in their path.

''We took (Khakrez) without firing a single shot. The Taliban joined us of their own free will,'' Karzai spokesman Mualam Qadir said by satellite telephone. ''We plan to take Kandahar in a similar fashion.''

In Washington, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said U.S. warplanes were hitting eastern Afghanistan with particular ferocity because intelligence indicated leaders of the al-Qaida organization -- and maybe bin Laden himself -- were operating there.

He said there was no evidence to support claims U.S. bombs were hitting civilians.

''I don't have any reports of any villages being struck,'' he said. ''The only reports I have are that all our weapons have been on target. I find that a little bit suspect, that villages are being flattened.''

Journalists visiting the destroyed village of Kama Ado saw nine craters among the mud and thatch houses, the ruins of which were spread over two hillsides along with children's shoes, dead cows and sheep and the tail fin of a U.S. Mk83 bomb. Local officials said scores were killed in three bombed villages. Anti-Taliban officials in the area appealed to Americans to improve their intelligence.

As fighting intensified around Kandahar on Monday, tribal forces under commander Gul Agha said they seized a guard tower at the corner of the airport and battled Taliban forces on the airport grounds. U.S. bombers kept up attacks on Taliban positions at the airport.

''There was harsh fighting going on all day,'' Khalid Pashtun, a spokesman for the fighters at the scene, said by satellite telephone.

Pashtun estimated that between 10 and 20 Taliban fighters were killed. He said only one tribal fighter was dead. Western journalists cannot enter the area, making it impossible to verify the claims.

''These are the last moments of the Taliban, and it's silly that they are still defending the city,'' Pashtun said.

U.S. Marines stationed at a desert base southwest of Kandahar have not joined the fight since helicopter gunships attacked a Taliban convoy a week ago.

Refugees streamed out of battered Kandahar, and the United Nations said 8,000 had left since the conflict intensified last week. Mahmood, who uses one name and had previously fled the northern alliance advance on the capital of Kabul, said planes were bombing the town and the road north to the capital without pause.

''Every minute I was on the road I was afraid,'' he said.

Mohammed, who also uses one name and who fled to Pakistan, said the Taliban imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., and forbade residents from lighting cigarettes outdoors to keep from presenting targets to warplanes.

''Only Arab men and Taliban roam the city at night,'' he said. ''Arabs are the best fighters. They fight even if death is staring them in the face.''

Karzai, speaking by satellite phone, said many Taliban in Kandahar were ready to give up, but Arabs loyal to bin Laden were preventing them.

''They can't get out of the city to surrender,'' he said. ''The Arabs have blocked the exits from Kandahar.''

President Bush launched military operations against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

In Islamad, Pakistan, Kenton Keith, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said Monday that he could not confirm claims of John Walker, who said he was an American citizen. Keith said, however, he had ''no reason to believe that he isn't.''

The prisoner, who was wounded and weak, was among a group of 82 Taliban fighters who emerged from their basement hideaway in a fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif Saturday after northern alliance troops flooded it with cold water.

Keither said ''it is too early to speculate'' whether the man would be prosecuted by the United States for treason.

After seven days of bargaining, delegates from four Afghan factions in Germany were preparing to disclose their nominees for an interim 29-member council, which would run the country for six months.

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