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Afghanistan: Efforts To Dislodge Taliban Centered On Kandahar, Kondoz

The Taliban's hold over Afghanistan is continuing to crumble, with much of the country coming under the control of the Northern Alliance or other anti-Taliban forces. Confusion over who controls the southern city of Kandahar continues, with the Taliban saying it holds the city, the opposition Northern Alliance saying the town is in chaos, and a tribal leader in the area saying the Taliban have thrown up a defensive circle around their last major bastion in Afghanistan.

Prague, 15 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- With most of Afghanistan in the hands of anti-Taliban forces, efforts at dislodging what remains of the militia are now focused around the southern city of Kandahar and the northern town of Kondoz.

Unconfirmed reports say local anti-Taliban fighters are advancing on the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar. Hamid Karzai, a pro-royalist leader, said local tribal fighters have already taken over the Kandahar airport. The U.S. Defense Department says U.S. special forces are on the ground in the area, working to track down accused terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his associates. Reuters reports that Pakistan has moved troops and tanks to its southwest frontier with Afghanistan after reports were made that bin Laden could try to escape across the border.

In northern Afghanistan, meanwhile, Northern Alliance soldiers are massing for a possible attack on thousands of Taliban forces believed to be trapped inside the town of Kondoz -- the last city in the north of the country still held by the Taliban. U.S. war planes pounded targets in and around Kondoz throughout the day. Northern Alliance leaders say the city may hold as many as 20,000 foreign Taliban fighters who fled from Mazar-i-Sharif, Talokan, and other northern cities.

Unconfirmed reports say some Taliban troops in Kondoz had agreed to surrender but reversed their decision when no agreement could be reached on the fate of foreign fighters holed up in the city.

Atiqullah Baryalai, deputy defense minister of the Northern Alliance, confirmed those reports today when he spoke to RFE/RL by telephone from the Kondoz area. Baryalai said the problem is that ordinary Taliban fighters are being influenced by foreign commanders, who he identified as Chechens, Arabs, Uzbeks, and Pakistanis.

"They are apparently determined to fight. We have asked them to surrender without conditions, under a general amnesty declared by the Islamic State, according to which we guarantee them safety. But they still insist on resistance and fighting, especially the foreigners in their ranks who have taken command. And they have taken the people of Kondoz hostage, including children, men, and women."

Embattled Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, believed to be in hiding near Kandahar, told the BBC through a spokesman that his men will continue fighting, waging a guerrilla war from the mountains if necessary. Asked whether the Taliban would consider taking part in a broad-based future Afghan government, Mullah Omar said he would prefer death. The Afghan Islamic Press quotes Omar as saying the Taliban now controls four or five out of Afghanistan's 31 provinces.

The rapid turn of events brought deliverance to eight Western aid workers who had been imprisoned by the Taliban for nearly three months on accusations of preaching Christianity -- a crime punishable by death under Taliban law. U.S. special forces airlifted the two Americans, two Australians, and four Germans to safety overnight from a field south of the Afghan capital, Kabul. They were flown this morning to the Chaklala air base near Islamabad, where they were met by diplomats from their respective embassies.

One of the released aid workers, Georg Taubmann of Germany, said Northern Alliance soldiers had broken into the prison where they had been held, in the city of Ghazni, allowing them to walk out.

"We got out of the prison and we walked through the city [of Ghazni] and the people came out of the houses and they hugged us and they greeted us. They were all clapping, and they didn't know there were foreigners in the prison, so it was a big attraction to them. Everybody came out of the houses in the city, and they were celebrating and waving to us and hugging us, and it was like a big celebration for all those people. And I think this was one of the biggest days of my life."

The foreign aid workers' 16 Afghan colleagues were also freed from imprisonment.

On the diplomatic front, efforts intensified to speed up the formation of an interim, Kabul-based administration. Special U.S. envoy James Dobbins held talks with senior Pakistani officials in Islamabad, and he was also due to meet exiled Afghan tribal leaders. Earlier this week, Dobbins flew to Rome for talks with Afghanistan's exiled king, Zahir Shah.

It is not immediately clear if Dobbins plans to continue to Kabul for talks with Northern Alliance officials, who have taken up key posts in the city. Despite calls by the United States and Pakistan to wait until a broad coalition can be assembled, Northern Alliance officials -- especially the Jamiat-i-Islami faction of ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani -- have returned to government offices they abandoned when the Taliban drove them from power in 1996. There are unconfirmed reports that Rabbani himself is planning a return to the capital soon.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking before the House of Commons in London last night, appealed to the Northern Alliance to cooperate with the United Nations and refrain from acts of reprisal.

"I have to say that regrettable incidents have happened as the liberated people have turned on their oppressors, and they should not happen. And I appeal to the Northern Alliance and all other forces in Afghanistan to be restrained, to avoid acts of revenge and engage with the United Nations."

Francesc Vendrell, the deputy to the UN special representative for Afghanistan, is also holding talks in Islamabad aimed at forging a broad-based government for Afghanistan that would include the fair representation of all ethnic groups, including the Pashtuns. He is expected to arrive in Kabul tomorrow.

The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution last night that affirms support for an Afghan political reform process outlined this week by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, but it stops short of authorizing a multinational peacekeeping force.

The resolution -- submitted by Britain and France --- calls on Afghans, both within their country and in the Afghan diaspora, to cooperate with Brahimi in helping to set up a transitional government and to refrain from acts of retaliation.

On the humanitarian front, the UN sent a shipment of 200 tons of wheat flour into northern Afghanistan today from the Uzbek river port of Termez. The initial shipment will go to feed internally displaced people in a camp located between the cities of Hairaton and Mazar-i-Sharif. More shipments are due to be sent in the coming days.

(RFE/RL's Turkmen Service contributed to this report.)