By Kathy Gannon
KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban forces fled their last stronghold today without a fight but with their weapons, freeing Kandahar from the Islamic militia’s harsh grip. U.S. forces battled to block their escape, and Afghanistan’s new leader vowed to arrest the fugitive mullah, Mohammed Omar.
In the east, American warplanes pounded the towering mountains around Tora Bora, where tribal commanders – spotting a tall man on horseback and intercepting radio traffic inquiring about “the sheik” – were increasingly certain bin Laden was hiding.
Backing away from their vow to defend Kandahar to the death, the Taliban had agreed Thursday to hand their weapons over to a tribal leader and surrender the city, the Taliban’s birthplace and last stand. But when tribal forces moved in today to implement the agreement, most of the Taliban were gone and Omar’s whereabouts were unknown, according to the new Afghan interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai.
Andy Card, President Bush’s chief of staff, told reporters on Air Force One that U.S. officials didn’t think Omar had left Kandahar. “We’re pretty sure he’s in Kandahar,” he said. A report from one Pakistan news service with a correspondent in Kandahar said that both Omar and his spokesman were still in the city where rival factions were quarreling over control.
Karzai vowed to arrest Omar if the Afghans can find him, after the United States made clear it would accept no deal allowing him to remain free.
“The Taliban ran away with their weapons,” Karzai said. “The leaders and the soldiers, they have all run away from the city.”
Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command, said U.S. forces were blocking Taliban troops fleeing from the city, using ground and air forces. He didn’t give details. “We have engaged forces who are leaving Kandahar with their weapons,” he said in Tampa, Florida.
Some residents, however, reported some departing Taliban turned in their weapons. Looting and gunfire were reported in some parts, but by nightfall a commander overseeing the handover said peace had returned. “The process of surrender has been completed and now the city is calm and peaceful,” Haji Bashar said.
A U.S. official in Washington also said on condition of anonymity that opposition forces were in control of most of Kandahar. But U.S. warplanes bombed areas around the city – presumably pockets of resistance or Taliban and al-Qaida fighters trying to escape.
“As we see emerging targets and we see good opportunities, we’re going after them,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke.
U.S. Marines patrolling a road near Kandahar attacked a three-car Taliban convoy early today, killing seven people in their first ground combat since setting up base in the desert near Kandahar on Nov. 25.
Western reporters were kept from Kandahar by the Taliban and so first hand reports were impossible. However, residents contacted by telephone said overjoyed citizens poured into the streets carrying pictures of Afghanistan’s deposed king. Others tore down the Taliban’s white flag in favor of Afghanistan’s old royal red, black and green ensign.
“The Taliban rule is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan,” Karzai said in a satellite telephone interview with The Associated Press.
But pockets of Taliban remained – among them, according to Franks, a group south of the city of Kunduz, though they are not fighting and are in talks with the northern alliance.
With Taliban power finished, the United States is focusing on its remaining objective – apprehending bin Laden, suspected of orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.
In the east, the majestic White Mountains filled with smoke and dust as American jets bombed positions of Arab fighters loyal to bin Laden around his Tora Bora cave complex.
Tribal commanders, mindful of a $25 million reward for bin Laden, reported two intriguing bits of information today: One group of fighters spotted a man resembling bin Laden on horseback visiting front-line troops, and another told of intercepted radio traffic in Arabic, inquiring from Kandahar about “the sheik.”
“The reply is, ‘The sheik is fine,’ ” said commander Zein Huddin. He was convinced “the sheik” was none other than bin Laden. Neither report could be independently confirmed.
In other developments:
_Bush, at a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, rejected “a truce or a treaty” with any Taliban or terrorist enemy in Afghanistan. “Like all fascists, the terrorists cannot be appeased. They must be defeated. This struggle will not end in a truce or a treaty. It will end in victory for the United States, our friends and for the cause of freedom,” he said.
_The head of U.N. peacekeeping operations, Jean-Marie Guehenno, said in London that a multinational force should be deployed in Kabul “as soon as possible,” hopefully before Dec. 22 when the interim government takes power.
_Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said his nation would concentrate on providing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and he vowed that no Russian forces would take part in military actions there.
_French President Jacques Chirac praised the fall of Kandahar and said there can be no amnesty for the Taliban. “Now, it has to be decided how the terrorists will pay for their crimes,” Chirac said on a visit to Yugoslavia.
The Taliban began surrendering Kandahar after two months of U.S. airstrikes and advances by opposition forces that drove them from most of the country. The United States launched its military campaign against them after they refused to hand over bin Laden.
The murky surrender of Kandahar made no mention of bin Laden or the hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreign fighters who follow him. Today, Afghanistan’s new administration promised to capture foreign al-Qaida fighters and Taliban leaders and bring them to trial.
“For the people who have on their hands the blood of the Afghan people, there is no general amnesty,” Younus Qanooni, the new interior minister, said on a visit to India.
Under the surrender agreement, control of the city was transferred to a tribal council. But one faction under former Kandahar governor Gul Agha has refused to recognize the authority of another under Mullah Naqib Ullah.
Khalid Pashtun, an ally of Agha, told Britain’s Channel 4 News that Mullah Naqib Ullah was holding Omar “in a friendly environment.”
He also claimed about 250 Arabs were holding out in the southern part of the city. Efforts to contact Mullah Naqib Ullah’s faction were unsuccessful.
The South Asian Dispatch Agency, based in Pakistan, quoted Omar’s spokesman Syed Tayyab Agha as saying both he and the Taliban chief remained in Kandahar.
“I am here and will remain here until otherwise ordered,” Agha was quoted as saying. “As long as Mullah Omar is here, I will be here. Many of our people are still in this city.”
Karzai said he believed Omar and what’s left of the Taliban and al-Qaida headed for mountain hide-outs in Zabul province, northeast of Kandahar. An old friend of Karzai’s, fellow Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, said the Taliban leader fled the city before the surrender.
Karzai, after ambiguous statements on Thursday, vowed today to bring Omar to justice.
“Of course I want to arrest him,” he said. “I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time has run out. He is an absconder, a fugitive from justice.”
Karzai confirmed that chaos had broken out in several areas within Kandahar as a result of the Taliban’s flight. He said there was no fighting among rival anti-Taliban forces.
However, frightened residents reported skirmishes among armed gangs. Speaking by satellite telephone from the city, one resident said armed men had set up checkpoints on some main roads.
Pashtun, the spokesman for Agha, called the surrender agreement a sham that allowed the perpetrators of Afghanistan’s latest bout of chaos to remain in power. He said Agha’s forces moved into Kandahar and seized the governor’s house and the army headquarters in fighting with troops of the city’s new administration. Two of Agha’s fighters were killed, Pashtun said. His report couldn’t be confirmed.
And in the area’s first report of retribution, Agha’s forces said they hanged a man they suspected of participating in the assassination of Abdul Haq, a Pashtun leader killed by the Taliban on Oct. 26 while trying to stir up opposition to the Islamic militia.
Gul-e-Lalai and Kamal Uddin, two of Agha’s top commanders, said the man was hanged in the town of Takhta Pull, just south of Kandahar.
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