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Afghanistan: Anti-Taliban Forces Close In On Last Bastion Kandahar

The United States and its allies in Afghanistan appear today to be near reaching their goal of routing the Taliban, Afghanistan's fading former rulers. But another goal -- that of capturing suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, and thereby decapitating his Al-Qaeda terrorist network -- remains elusive. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill recounts the latest military developments in the U.S.-led war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

Prague, 30 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Anti-Taliban forces have surrounded the lone remaining stronghold of Afghanistan's Taliban Islamic militia. It is the city of Kandahar, the headquarters and birthplace of the Taliban.

Northern Alliance Defense Minister General Mohammed Fahim says he expects Taliban fighters to surrender in the next few days to the forces of Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun opposition military leader. The Pashtun comprise Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.

About 750 U.S. Marines have deployed at a base south of Kandahar, and U.S. Defense Department spokesman Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem says the United States is coordinating its actions with anti-Taliban groups, predominately ethnic Pashtuns, around the city of Kandahar.

Stufflebeem says the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance is not directly involved there. The Northern Alliance, largely comprised of non-Pashtuns, is the coalition of anti-Taliban forces that has swept the Taliban out of huge chunks of northern Afghanistan and its capital, Kabul, over the last three weeks.

The U.S. spokesman said in a news conference in Washington late yesterday that the Afghan city is surrounded: "I think that the situation, as it has developed to this point, is different in Kandahar than we have seen up in the north. The city of Kandahar is in a large way relatively surrounded by opposition groups."

U.S. warplanes attacked the airport and other targets at Kandahar with bombs and missiles today. But Khalid Pashtoon, a spokesperson for former Kandahar Governor Gul Agha -- commander of about 3,000 fighters -- says Agha has no intention of trying to advance on Kandahar today. Former Taliban commanders say thousands of Taliban troops with dozens of tanks remain dug in there.

Western news services are carrying reports that the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has called on Taliban Afghan soldiers and their volunteer foreign allies to fight to the death in Kandahar.

Across Afghanistan in November, Taliban warriors have been surrendering and defecting in droves. But reports say an unnamed Taliban official is quoting Omar as telling his followers that Kandahar represents their last, best chance to achieve martyrdom.

Stufflebeem said information available to the United States shows the situation in Kandahar city remains uncertain: "They [anti-Taliban groups] are very active in negotiations [with defending forces]. From those who are within the city and those who are outlying, we know that there are Taliban forces who are digging in -- intending to fight would be my assumption. We know there are non-Taliban forces there as well, who have already broadcast their intentions to dig in and fight to the death. But we also know that there are Taliban forces that, in fact, are fleeing."

Abdul Salam Zaeef, former ambassador to Pakistan and the Taliban's best-known spokesman, said yesterday that the Taliban's ranks have been thinned by "countless numbers of martyrs" from nearly eight weeks of U.S. bombings and ground operations by anti-Taliban forces. Zaeef said the Taliban cannot number its losses because its communication system is crippled.

In the north, more than 50 members of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division have deployed to an airfield in Bagram, near Kabul.

General Fahim, the Northern Alliance defense minister, says the presence of U.S. troops has intensified pressure on the Taliban. He says Omar and suspected terrorist leader Osama bin Laden have been reduced to moving secretly from place to place.

He says he believes that U.S. or indigenous anti-Taliban forces will capture the two once Kandahar and its suburbs fall.

The United States has focused its hunt for bin Laden -- whom it considers the top suspect in the 11 September terrorist attacks -- on eastern Afghanistan. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney says bin Laden probably is hiding in mountain caves around Tora Bora, 56 kilometers southwest of Jalalabad.

In Islamabad today, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism said that Northern Alliance forces have arrested Ahmed Omar Abdel-Rahman, wanted by the United States for being an Al-Qaeda terrorist network member. The spokesman, Kenton Keith, said he expects the Northern Alliance to turn Abdel-Rahman over to coalition authorities shortly.

Abdel-Rahman's capture is the first confirmed arrest of anyone sought by the United States as a top Al-Qaeda member.