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Afghanistan: U.S. Air Strikes Continue On Kondoz Despite Surrender Talks

U.S. war planes are continuing to bomb the besieged Taliban enclave of Kondoz in northern Afghanistan today, as well as suspected Taliban targets near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. As talks continue on a possible surrender of local Taliban fighters from Kondoz, a senior U.S. military official announced the deployment of gunships in Uzbekistan -- a location that will allow them to more easily attack Kunduz.

Prague, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Northern Alliance officials say they have suspended a ground assault on the besieged city of Kondoz while talks continue on the possible surrender of local Taliban fighters trapped there.

Western correspondents near Kondoz report that opposition General Abdul Rashid Dostum has offered to meet some Taliban commanders at Mazar-i-Sharif to discuss a proposed amnesty and surrender. No time frame for that meeting has been confirmed, but the reports say Dostum is refusing to negotiate with any members of the Al-Qaeda network or with pro-Taliban foreigners.

At least 10,000 Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are thought to be surrounded at Kondoz since they fled there from Mazar-i-Sharif earlier this month. Washington has confirmed that a significant number of Arabs, Pakistanis, and Chechens are trapped there.

Taliban defectors are quoted as saying foreign Al-Qaeda hard-liners at Kondoz have been executing local Taliban fighters who try to surrender. The Northern Alliance says as many as 30,000 pro-Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are trapped within the encirclement.

Despite Northern Alliance statements on a suspended ground assault, RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky today quotes Northern Alliance commanders as saying that Dostum's troops are attacking Kondoz from the south. Babitsky also confirms that U.S. air strikes are continuing to focus today on Taliban positions within the Kondoz encirclement.

"U.S. planes continue to bomb Kondoz today despite the fact that talks are continuing between the Northern Alliance command and some Taliban commanders."

Northern Alliance commander Mohammed Daoud says he expects the negotiations on a Kondoz surrender to continue at least until the end of this week. "We had direct negotiations with the Taliban [19 November] night [and 20 November]. We will hold more negotiations...and will probably continue till the end of the week. Local Afghan Taliban are ready to surrender. I am not optimistic that most of the foreign Taliban, especially those who are the higher authorities of the Taliban, will agree to surrender."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington that he will do everything he can to prevent Al-Qaeda fighters and hard-line Taliban supporters from negotiating their way out of Afghanistan. Rumsfeld said hard-liners should not be allowed a chance to "destabilize other countries and engage in terrorist attacks on the United States."

U.S. General Tommy Franks, who is in charge of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, indicated today that steps are being taken that will allow air strikes on Kondoz to be intensified.

Franks confirmed that three powerful AC-130H gunships are being deployed at an air base in Uzbekistan. The propeller-driven airplanes are capable of circling an area slowly and firing concentrated cannon barrages at ground targets.

The deployments are in addition to three similar gunships that have been used against targets in southern Afghanistan since last month. Pentagon officials say the gunships will work with unmanned reconnaissance aircraft to target small groups of Taliban or Al-Qaeda fighters who try to move overland.

Basing the planes in Uzbekistan also will greatly decrease the flying time needed for gunship attacks on Kondoz.

Franks confirmed that a hardcore element of the Taliban at Kondoz is refusing to discuss a surrender. Franks said U.S. forces will continue to do whatever is necessary to destroy Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I don't know how long that battle will continue, but [in the end], we will prevail in the vicinity of Kondoz."

Franks also told reporters that he visited the strategic Bagram air base about 40 kilometers north of Kabul yesterday for talks with Northern Alliance commanders. It is the first time that the presence of a U.S. general within Afghanistan has been confirmed since air strikes were launched in early October.

"We had a full, frank, free, and open discussion of where we think we stand today. We also discussed planning for the future. I reinforced with [Northern Alliance leaders] the mission statement, which very unambiguously says that our coalition is all about the destruction of the Al-Qaeda leadership and the destruction of this illegitimate Taliban government that has provided safe haven [for Al-Qaeda]."

But Franks refused to confirm whether his inspection of the Bagram air base has led to a decision on whether to use the facility as a staging area for additional coalition ground troops in Afghanistan. He said only that the international coalition "may or may not" take such a step and that "small numbers" of ground forces may be introduced into Afghanistan.

Several hundred special forces are now thought to be operating on the ground. Some are helping to coordinate U.S. air strikes. Others are gathering intelligence, while some are thought to be taking part in military operations to try to hunt down Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In Washington yesterday, a senior U.S. defense official said that up to 1,500 U.S. Marines now aboard ships in the Arabian Sea may be sent into Afghanistan within the next week.

Amid these developments, the Taliban is remaining defiant in southern Afghanistan. A spokesman for supreme Taliban leader Mullah Omar confirmed today that the Taliban now controls only a handful of southern provinces.

Spokesman Syed Tayyad Agha told reporters gathered at a border crossing between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan that those areas include the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Oruzgan, as well as parts of Ghazni province. "You see that our areas, they are limited now to three or four provinces."

Agha said the Taliban no longer has any contact with bin Laden. He also vowed that the Taliban would defend its southern stronghold to the death.