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Afghanistan: Kandahar Remains Focus Of Military Operations

A U.S. Defense Department spokesman says opposition forces are consolidating near Kandahar, the last Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. U.S. warplanes today continued air strikes on suspected Taliban targets around Kandahar and in eastern Afghanistan. The strikes in the east were directed at cave and tunnel complexes where suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and members of his Al-Qaeda network are believed to be hiding.

Prague, 4 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Unconfirmed reports from Afghanistan say tribal fighters in the south are edging closer to the Taliban's last stronghold of Kandahar.

A spokesman for ethnic Pashtun warlord Hamid Karzai said his Popalzai tribal fighters captured overnight the district of Shahwali Kot, some 30 kilometers north of Kandahar, meeting little resistance.

But the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) quotes Taliban sources as saying the tribal fighters' assault had been repelled. There is no independent confirmation on the fighting.

Meanwhile, AIP also reports that U.S. warplanes bombed Kandahar airport and targets in mountains south of Kandahar earlier today. U.S. planes also struck at possible hideouts of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden in the caves and mountains of Tora Bora and Paktia Province in eastern Afghanistan.

Haji Mohammad Zaman, a Northern Alliance commander in eastern Afghanistan, today said Ali Mahmud, bin Laden's financial manager, was killed in a U.S. air strike south of the eastern town of Jalalabad. The report could not be independently confirmed.

There are also news agency reports that other Al-Qaeda members may have been wounded, including Al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Hayat, a Kuwaiti, and Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian, considered one of bin Laden's deputies.

There are indications from Jalalabad that some 2,000 Afghan tribesmen have formed a unit and are preparing to go to Tora Bora and hunt down bin Laden and the non-Afghan fighters said to be hiding there. Reuters news agency quotes a spokesman for Hazrat Ali, the Jalalabad military chief, as saying the tribesmen left for Tora Bora this morning.

Despite problems created by blowing sand in southern Afghanistan, U.S. Marines stationed southwest of Kandahar doubled the number of attack and support helicopters available to them over the weekend and are actively patrolling the surrounding area. Special metal plates are being put down in the desert to keep helicopters from blowing sand around when taking off and landing.

The marines were not active today in the fight for control of Kandahar, the last major Afghan city still under Taliban control. But local forces were active. A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, told a press briefing last night that there is a lot of activity around Kandahar.

"Southern opposition groups, both north and south of the city [Kandahar], are consolidating power. These opposition leaders are in contact with some of the Taliban factions and are still negotiating the release of the city to the southern opposition groups. There are forces that we are seeing digging in -- that would intend, obviously, to stay and fight -- and those are probably non-Afghans."

However, attempts to capture the airport outside Kandahar, a key target in the campaign for the city itself, have been repelled so far.

More and more civilians are also reported to be fleeing Kandahar and making their way toward the Pakistani border.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is repeating its assertion that the campaign in Afghanistan will not be over soon, even if Kandahar falls. U.S policy coordinator for Afghanistan Richard Haas was in India today. He said as long as the job of destroying the Al-Qaeda terrorist network is unfinished, the military campaign in Afghanistan will continue.

Even Stufflebeem, while noting the enthusiasm of marines who are in southern Afghanistan, cautioned that the U.S. military is prepared for a long conflict.

"If I were a marine at the forward operating base [in southern Afghanistan], surrounded by a thousand of my red-blooded American fighters, I would probably feel that I am pretty close to getting this thing to a conclusion. However, from a perspective above that altitude or maybe even outside of Afghanistan, the Central Command and certainly the national command authorities are prepared for a longer duration."

While the news from the scenes of battle may be encouraging, events in some areas under the control of the Northern Alliance show problems are arising in liberated parts of the country.

United Nations aid workers have halted their work in northern Afghanistan near the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The city was captured by Northern Alliance forces nearly one month ago but shooting was reported in the center of the city last night. It appears, from all available reports, to have been fighting between feuding alliance commanders.

The road from Kabul to the central Bamiyan region is reportedly so infested with bandits that aid workers refused to leave Kabul with a convoy of humanitarian aid bound for the region.