By Maura Reynolds and Alissa J. Rubin
Los Angeles Times
BANGI, Afghanistan — Northern Alliance forces moved into the Taliban’s last stronghold in northern Afghanistan on Saturday as hundreds, and perhaps more than 1,000, defectors poured out of the city of Kunduz and surrendered tanks, artillery and other weaponry.
At least some of those who surrendered were hard-line foreign Taliban, whose fate has been the focus of intense speculation and negotiation for days. At least a few of them turned out to be suicide bombers who had rigged their bodies with explosives and blew themselves up in Northern Alliance custody.
"They killed about five or six Northern Alliance commanders," one alliance commander, Haji Mohammed Mukhaqiq, said by satellite telephone from Mazar-e-Sharif, alliance headquarters for the front line west of Kunduz.
It was unclear late Saturday whether the alliance had succeeded in capturing Kunduz. It was also unclear whether the advance followed an agreement on the surrender of non-Afghan Taliban fighters.
Many of the hard-liners are Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other non-Afghans connected to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
Abdul Naser, a Northern Alliance spokesman in Taloqan, a city near the eastern front of the Kunduz area, said that "local Taliban want to surrender and the foreign Taliban do not. They want to fight to the death."
In talks in recent days, Taliban hard-liners asked for safe passage to join their comrades in the movement’s other remaining stronghold, its spiritual center of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. But Northern Alliance officials have said that would be unworkable.
Northern Alliance leaders have said that while they are prepared to release fellow Afghans who fought with the Taliban, they want to deal more harshly with the foreign Taliban troops.
That has created a dilemma for the United States, because many of the foreign fighters are from Pakistan, which wants to avoid a blood bath. The United States wants to assist Pakistan because of its agreement to support the war on terrorism. But so far, American officials have backed the Northern Alliance position.
Mukhaqiq said the alliance sent forces into Kunduz from the south and the east, and had entered the city. He could not provide details of the fighting or say whether the city was fully under control of the Northern Alliance. He estimated that the number of Taliban forces in the city, said in recent days to be as high as 30,000, had fallen to fewer than 12,000.
After intense bombardment Friday, U.S. warplanes kept their distance from Kunduz on Saturday, with no visible signs of bombing or even aerial surveillance.
Instead, the day was marked by dramatic defections that suggested support for the Taliban was hemorrhaging.
Defections are an integral part of Afghan warfare. Commanders often maintain ties to others on the opposing side, and switch sides according to clan ties or the shifting fortunes of war.
New fighting also was reported Saturday between Taliban forces and ethnic Pashtun tribal groups in southern Afghanistan, increasing the pressure on Kandahar.
About 800 fighters loyal to influential tribal chief Hamid Karzai and a second force under Gul Agha Shirzai, a tribal leader who commanded anti-Soviet "moujahedeen" forces in the 1980s, were engaged in heavy fighting with the Taliban along a main road leading from Kandahar to the border with Pakistan, Karzai’s brother, Ahmed, said.
As the Pashtun fighters attacked the Taliban on the ground, U.S. warplanes reportedly hit them from the skies.