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Afghanistan: Taliban Surrenders Kandahar, But Challenges Remain

The Taliban today surrendered control of its last stronghold, the southern city of Kandahar, to forces loyal to Afghanistan's new interim administration. Additional Taliban surrenders are being reported in other areas. Anti-Taliban forces also claim to have captured a cave complex in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network has a base. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox looks at events in Afghanistan during the last 24 hours.

Prague, 7 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Taliban fighters in their last bastion of Kandahar began handing over their weapons this morning to a joint commission of tribal elders, Islamic religious scholars, and former mujahedin commanders.

Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban, the city from which the radical militia launched its campaign to seize control of the country in the mid-1990s. Despite earlier vows to defend the city to the death, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar yesterday agreed to surrender.

Kandahar's fall -- coupled with surrenders now underway in the nearby town of Spin Boldak and Helmand and Zabul provinces -- is the final nail in the coffin ending the Islamic militia's five-year rule in Afghanistan.

As opposition forces took control, witnesses said residents poured into the streets to celebrate, tearing down the Taliban's white flag.

The man who is to be the country's new leader, Hamid Karzai, said the operation proceeded peacefully, but admitted that some looting had broken out as the city changed hands.

Speaking from his base outside the city, he also acknowledged that many Taliban fighters -- who were still armed -- reneged on their deal and simply fled the city. Some reports said Mullah Omar was among those who had fled.

But the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Kenton Keith, said Omar is still thought to be in Kandahar -- and that he is close to capture.

With very few journalists reporting from the city or its immediate surroundings, information is coming mainly from the main players via telephone and is hard to confirm.

Yesterday, Karzai said Omar would be given protection if he promised to renounce terrorism. But the U.S. says it opposes any agreement that would allow him to go free. Today, Karzai appeared to harden his stance against Omar, insisting that he face trial: "[Mullah Omar] has not [renounced terrorism]. I've been asking him for the past month to renounce terrorism and to condemn the brutalities that terrorism has committed in Afghanistan and the United States and the rest of the world. He did not do that. Last night was his last chance before the transfer of power to do that, so he has not and he remains committed to his association with terrorism."

Karzai said what he called the "common Taliban" -- native Afghans, as opposed to foreign fighters -- have been given full security to go back to their homes. But he said the Taliban's foreign supporters -- including Arabs, Chechens, and Pakistanis -- face a different fate.

"The case of the foreign Taliban fighters, the foreign terrorists who have made Afghanistan their base, who have made the Afghan people suffer, who have killed Afghan people, who have committed crimes against people in other countries, in our nation -- they are criminals who have committed unbelievably inhuman crimes," he said. "They must face justice. They will not be let go."

But even as Karzai hailed the fall of Kandahar, squabbles arose among the anti-Taliban forces who had been advancing on the city. Influential tribal leader Gul Agha was reportedly angry at the terms of the surrender and was said to be ready to march on the city. The former Kandahar governor was angry that power in the city was to be transferred initially to Mullah Naqibullah, a former mujahedin commander who he says helped the Taliban while in power. And he did not like Karzai's earlier suggestion that Omar go free if he renounces terrorism.

But Karzai downplayed reports of a rift. Agha is "a good Afghan," Karzai told AFP, adding: "I hope everything will be fine."

In Islamabad, Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan said Kandahar's fall will help Afghanistan's new interim administration -- agreed at this week's talks in Bonn -- to take power.

"[The decision to surrender Kandahar] will greatly help in the implementation of the Bonn agreement and the establishment of the durable peace in Afghanistan. We hope that all the Afghan people will devote all their energy for the successful implementation of the Bonn agreement as well as for the reconstruction of their war-ravaged country. The government and people of Pakistan fully support the endeavors of our Afghan brothers in that regard."

The area around Kandahar was also the scene of the first ground action by U.S. marines since they seized an air base there nearly two weeks ago.

Marine Captain David Romley said his troops killed seven Taliban fighters last night, after three Taliban vehicles approached their patrol. He said no U.S. marines were injured.

In the U.S., Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that the fall of Kandahar will narrow the focus of the U.S. campaign to the caves in the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan.

A spokesman for the Northern Alliance, Mohammed Habeel, said anti-Taliban forces have captured bin Laden's main base in the Tora Bora region, though there's still no sign of bin Laden himself.

But the Al-Qaeda leader is increasingly isolated. A spokesman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last night the government was receiving "persistent reports" that bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri has been killed.

Anti-Taliban forces earlier said that al-Zawahiri -- the founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad network -- was injured in an American air strike on the Tora Bora cave complex.

Blair's spokesman said, however, that it was not possible to be "100 percent sure" about the reports of al-Zawahiri's death.

On the peacekeeping front, a senior UN official said today he wants a multinational force to begin deploying in Afghanistan when the interim administration takes office on December 22.

Undersecretary General Jean-Marie Guehenno did not say which countries will take part. But he said he would be "surprised" if the force included soldiers from any of Afghanistan's immediate neighbors.

He said the force -- which will be deployed initially in Kabul and then spread to other areas of Afghanistan -- will not be under UN command.