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Afghanistan: 500 Taliban Surrender At Kondoz; Hardcore Taliban Remain

Some 500 Taliban fighters reportedly surrendered today at Kondoz -- the militia's last northern stronghold -- and Northern Alliance troops advanced on the besieged city. But there are conflicting reports about a surrender deal. At the same time, hardcore Taliban fighters, pro-Taliban foreigners, and members of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network were still manning defensive posts within the encirclement after dark.

Prague, 22 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-Taliban forces today advanced toward the last Taliban stronghold in Northern Afghanistan -- the encircled city of Kondoz.

Northern Alliance Deputy Defense Minister General Atiqullah Baryalai told RFE/RL that a total of about 500 Taliban fighters abandoned their defensive positions around Kondoz to surrender today. Most are thought to be moderates Taliban fighters: "About 200 Taliban soldiers on one front and 300 on another front surrendered to us today. Since the areas were vacated, our [Northern Alliance] forces took up their positions. Later, I instructed them to pull back from these positions in order to prevent fighting until the end of negotiations [on a possible surrender.]"

The Northern Alliance troops began moving toward the city on foot and in trucks early this afternoon. A column of tanks also was deployed on a road leading into Kondoz as Northern Alliance artillery fired on Taliban defenses. But those tanks had not advanced before nightfall. U.S. aircraft are continuing to bomb Taliban trenches near the front lines. Northern Alliance rocket and artillery fire targeting positions in Kondoz continued after dark.

Western television reports show images of hundreds of Taliban fighters crossing to the Northern Alliance lines to surrender.

With conflicting reports about a deal between Northern Alliance and Taliban commanders, it is not immediately clear whether Kondoz is on the brink of a major battle or an unconditional Taliban surrender.

Initial reports suggest that hardcore elements of the Islamic militia are staying in Kondoz tonight together with pro-Taliban foreigners and defiant members of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

Reports also suggest that some Northern Alliance commanders are still eager to launch an assault on the city, while Alliance General Abdul Rashid Dostum has been interested in brokering a surrender deal.

RFE/RL's correspondent Andrei Babitsky, reporting from near Kondoz, says that Dostum's forces have collected on the south side of the encirclement -- the area where many of today's surrenders took place.

Mullah Faizil Mazloom, the Taliban deputy defense minister at Kondoz, said today that all foreigners and Taliban fighters in the city have agreed to lay down their weapons and capitulate. But a spokesman for the Taliban governor of Kondoz province has denied the existence of any surrender deal.

Shah Jan, an aide to Northern Alliance General Mohammed Daud, also says that Kondoz has not surrendered. He described the situation on the ground as "confused" and "changing every minute."

Dostum says that control of Kondoz would be settled without bloodshed on the condition that all Taliban fighters and their foreign supporters in the city complete an unconditional surrender by 25 November.

The issue of foreign Taliban fighters in Afghanistan is sensitive for the government in neighboring Pakistan, which is part of the U.S.-led international coalition against terrorism.

Relatives of some of Pakistan's most powerful religious leaders are thought to be among the pro-Taliban fighters trapped at Kondoz. Officials in Islamabad fear that ill-treatment of those Pakistani nationals by the Northern Alliance could cause a fresh crisis within Pakistan.

Islamabad has asked for the foreigners at Kondoz to be given safe passage to Paksitan's border, where they would be arrested by Pakistani authorities.

But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently he was against any deal that allows those trapped at Kondoz to escape. He said such a deal would only allow those fighters a chance to destabilize other countries or to launch terrorist attacks on the United States.

General Baryalai confirmed that the issue of what will happen to Al-Qaeda fighters and other foreigners has been a major sticking point in negotiations over a surrender: "The Taliban said they are prepared to give up their arms under the condition that their lives are spared and they can leave [Kondoz] safely and go to their respective provinces. But their opinion on the foreign Taliban is that they don't want to hand them over. Our specific first and last demand is that they hand over the foreign Taliban to us."

Baryalai also indicated that the Northern Alliance would not allow Chechens, Pakistanis, and Arabs at Kondoz to have safe passage out of Afghanistan in exchange for leaving the city without a fight: "Since the [foreign Taliban] have come to our country for the purpose of terror, war, and inflaming hatred, we will therefore treat them according to what would be applicable to prisoners of war."

Earlier today, Northern Alliance troops launched an attack against Taliban hilltop positions overlooking the main road that links the capital Kabul with the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar.

That battle was taking place in and around the township of Maidan Shahr, which is about 30 kilometers to the west of Kabul.

Western correspondents say the Northern Alliance launched rocket, mortar, and artillery barrages on some 1,200 Taliban fighters who are thought to be defending strategic high ground about 20 kilometers from the Afghan capital. The assault also reportedly included the use of at least 11 Northern Alliance tanks.

U.S.-led air strikes also were focusing on Taliban positions around Kandahar, where Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar has vowed a "fight to the death."

Some opposition leaders claim that there are now tribal leaders in Kandahar province who are launching an uprising against the Taliban. But those claims could not be immediately confirmed.