Last Taliban stronghold under siege

By Kathy Gannon

Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan – The northern alliance tightened its siege on the last Taliban bastion in the north, Kunduz, where foreign fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden reportedly were preventing a Taliban surrender. Four international journalists were missing after gunmen ambushed their convoy in eastern Afghanistan.

The northern alliance asked the United Nations to find representatives from Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun ethnic group with whom the alliance can negotiate over a new government. A conference between all Afghan factions was set to begin Nov. 24 in Germany, most likely Berlin, a Pakistani diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

There was no immediate confirmation of the date and venue of the conference. U.S. and U.N. diplomats have been putting intense pressure on the alliance, which is made up mainly of ethnic minorities, to agree to a conference and share power.

The Pentagon said today that more U.S. commandos had been deployed in southern Afghanistan to help in the hunt for bin Laden. There are a few hundred Americans now on the ground throughout the country, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said.

U.S. officials say bin Laden, the top suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, was losing space in which to hide. “We’re beginning to narrow his possibilities for hiding,” said Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser.

At Kunduz, foreign militants loyal to bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network – mostly Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens – were preventing their Afghan allies in the Taliban from surrendering, refugees from the city said.

Refugees have said up to 300 Taliban fighters were shot – apparently by their own side – as they tried to surrender Friday. Reports of other killings on a smaller scale have also emerged in recent days.

The Taliban had offered over the weekend to leave Kunduz on condition of guarantees of safety for the foreign fighters, a northern alliance commander said. But other alliance commanders said today they doubted the Taliban were in a position to negotiate since Arabs effectively control the city.

Alliance troops for the past several days had encircled the city without firing. But todaythey used two tanks, two artillery pieces and a multiple rocket launcher to fire on Taliban positions in the hills.

American warplanes also struck the city’s defenses today. U.S. airstrikes were also reported in the south and east of the country.

Meanwhile, refugees who fled Kunduz to the nearby village of Bangi reported summary executions by the besieged Taliban. One refugee, Dar Zardad, said Taliban killed eight teen-agers for laughing at them and other fighters shot to death a doctor who was slow to treat wounded Taliban.

The four journalists were missing after armed men stopped their convoy of six to eight cars on the road between the capital, Kabul, and the eastern city of Jalalabad. Gunmen opened fire after the journalists were taken from their cars into the surrounding hills, drivers said.

“They took the journalists, and when the journalists turned to look at them, the gunmen shot,” said driver Mohammed Farrad.

The area recently came mainly under the control of anti-Taliban forces. However, some Taliban stragglers and Arab fighters were still believed to be in the area.

Two Reuters journalists were missing from the ambush – Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan-born photographer – the news agency said. Also missing were Julio Fuentes, of the Spanish daily El Mundo, and Maria Grazia Cutuli, of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the two papers said.

Backed by U.S. bombardment, the northern alliance swept the Taliban out of northern Afghanistan last week and seized the capital, Kabul. The Taliban hold also fell apart in the south, where local leaders took control of many areas. The only major cities still in the Islamic militia’s hands are Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south.

In Kabul, television – banned for the past five years under the Taliban – resumed broadcasting, with two hours of programming Sunday and to night. A woman announcer, with her black hair partially covered with a scarf, read news and promotions between public health programs, cartoons and music.

Kabul residents also swarmed the newly opened Bakhtar cinema, long closed by the Taliban ban on movies. Hundreds of people who couldn’t fit into the packed theater jostled outside, blocking traffic. Finally, soldiers with rifles intervened, pushing the crowd away from the front gate.

The northern alliance’s foreign minister, Abdullah, said today that the alliance preferred to hold a conference of Afghan factions in Kabul but had relented on this demand. “We didn’t want to make the venue and obstacle,” he said.

He called on the United Nations to find Pashtun representatives for the conference – but underlined that the alliance would not accept former Taliban leaders.

Most of the Taliban were Pashtuns. While some Pashtun tribes have risen up against the Taliban over the past week, so far no concrete Pashtun leadership has emerged.

Franscesc Vendrell, the deputy to the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, met prominent Afghan figures in Kabul. However, many other factions don’t have a presence in the capital.

The head of the northern alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani – who was once the Afghan president and has never dropped his claim to be head of state – controls Kabul. The United Nations wants a conference held on neutral ground, out from under the shadow of alliance domination.

Neighboring Pakistan, which was once the Taliban’s top supporter but backed the U.S. campaign against the militia, urged Afghan factions not to miss the opportunity for peace.

“All of our Afghan brothers should think of the future of their country and not resort to actions that promote their selfish interests,” Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar told a news conference in Islamabad.

In western Afghanistan, alliance officials showed journalists a mass grave near Shindand military airport that they said contained the bodies of 27 anti-Taliban fighters massacred by the Taliban before the Islamic militia fled the city last week.

In Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, a delegation of tribal leaders was trying to negotiate a transfer of power, Afghan sources in Pakistan said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The report could not be independently confirmed. The Taliban has denied earlier reports that it was planning to abandon the city.

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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