Taliban flee Kandahar
By Patrick Healy, and Farah Stockman, Globe Staff, 12/08/2001
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Taliban troops abandoned their final stronghold of Kandahar yesterday and fled into the mountains before Afghan and American forces could disarm them and capture supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Despite an agreement a day earlier to surrender themselves and their weapons, the Taliban soldiers and their leader slipped past US soldiers and tribal commanders outside the city and disappeared with untold munitions.
The new interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai -- who had originally called for lenient treatment of Omar if he denounced terrorism -- yesterday demanded his capture and trial. "I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time has run out. He is an absconder, a fugitive from justice," he said. By last night, Karzai's troops had begun a manhunt for Omar.
Although reports of the power transfer in Kandahar differed widely, it seemed clear that the Taliban had lost control of the city yesterday morning amid confusion, brief fighting, and widespread looting. By afternoon, residents reportedly began stepping outside their homes, some cheering the ouster of the Taliban's hard-line Islamic rule, and others tearing down the regime's white flags from building facades, according to reports from the city.
As Taliban and Qaeda forces fled the city, US ground forces yesterday attacked in an attempt to stop them.
"We have engaged forces that are leaving Kandahar with their weapons," Army General Tommy R. Franks, the commander of the war, said at a news conference at his Central Command headquarters in Tampa. "We are blocking [their escape] in some cases from the air, we are blocking in some cases with direct fire from the ground."
At least seven of the fleeing Taliban were killed in a confrontation with Marines outside the city before dawn. It began when three Taliban vehicles approached a "hunter-killer" team of Marines on heavily armed Humvees at 4 a.m., and the Marines attacked from the ground and from the air, said the spokesman, Captain David Romley. It was the first US offensive ground action in southern Afghanistan this month. No Marines were injured.
Meanwhile, in the eastern mountain village of Tora Bora, US troops intensified attacks in support of Afghan troops. Local opposition fighters said they seized control of at least one cave complex where Osama bin Laden was suspected of hiding, but US officials said there are several other Al Qaeda hideouts, including a smaller fortress closer to the Pakistani border.
Local commanders there also relayed reports of a man referred to as "sheik," who they suspect may be the Saudi-born bin Laden. But the whereabouts of the man believed responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States remained unknown.
"We have intercepted radio messages from Kandahar to the Al Qaeda forces here, and they ask, `How is the sheik?' The reply is, `The sheik is fine,' " said commander Zein Huddin, who said the reference may be code for bin Laden.
Yesterday's apparent collapse of the Taliban was not the military rout the United States had sought after 10 weeks of punishing bombardment. Nor was the liberation of Kandahar -- the city where the crumbling Taliban had planned to make a last stand defending its fundamentalist Islamic regime -- quite what some envisioned.
Amid the confusion, a top aide to an anti-Taliban commander said over 800 Taliban fighters refused to surrender and remained holed up in a garrison yesterday after trading fire with incoming troops.
Khalid Pushtoon, a commander and spokesman for the former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai, said that fighting broke out in the streets after a commander, Naqibullah, who was supposed to oversee the Taliban surrender, "switched sides" and became their leader.
"We told them to surrender, but they wouldn't surrender," Pushtoon told reporters by phone from Kandahar. Naqibullah, the former mujahideen commander who seven years ago gave Kandahar to the Taliban without a fight -- and to whom they agreed to hand over power Thursday -- "is actually protecting the Taliban and their leaders" he said.
Naqibullah was quoted by the Pashtun-language BBC as saying that Omar was "under his control," Pushtoon said.
But other sources outside the city said the Taliban had indeed given up, and attributed the chaos in Kandahar to the outbreak of power grabs among the newly arrived anti-Taliban commanders -- some of whom had formerly ruled the region as warlords.
"Today, Kandahar was divided into seven fiefdoms," said a senior Pakistani intelligence official with close ties to the Taliban who spoke on the condition on anonymity. "Naturally, they are now going to hold the area, to occupy it."
According to the official, the city had been divided between Karzai, the interim prime minister, Naqibullah, the former governor Sherzai, a former mujahideen commander and influential businessman Haji Bashir, a commander named Amir Lali, and two others.
Sherzai's troops marched into the city around 2 p.m. yesterday to find the governor's mansion thoroughly looted, Pushtoon said.
Western journalists have not been allowed to enter the Kandahar area, so reports of activity there were based on accounts from witnesses arriving in Kabul and satellite telephone interviews.
Last night in Islamabad, Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef would not come to the door of his home to speak to a reporter, but a staff member of the now-defunct Taliban embassy said that Omar and about 15 to 20 of his close associates had left Kandahar for an unknown location, and that he did not know whether they took weapons with them.
Elsewhere in Islamabad, US coalition spokesman Kenton Keith denied that the US government had anything to do with the change of Karzai's position on giving amnesty to Omar, and suggested that the US-led coalition would have no hand in any deal that might be brokered with Taliban fighters.
"Mr. Karzai is completely free in his negotiations. Opposition forces are not a proxy of the coalition," Keith said. "As long as our interests coincide, we will cooperate. To characterize [Karzai] as being under the control of the coalition is unfirm and harmful," he added.
On Thursday, the United States had reacted critically to the suggestion of any deal that let Omar or other Taliban leaders walk away unpunished. Karzai had reportedly promised safe passage for Pakistanis who fought under Omar to return home.
"For the people who have on their hands the blood of the Afghan people, there is no general amnesty," Younus Qanooni, the new interior minister, said on a visit to India.
Meanwhile, US fears that bin Laden may already have fled across the border prompted US Navy and other coalition warships, submarines, and aircraft to more forcefully ply the waters of the Arabian Sea, particularly along the Pakistani coast, in search of escaping Qaeda leaders.
Marines and Navy SEALS from the USS Shreveport on Thursday boarded and searched a merchant vessel, the Kota Sejara, in the north Arabian Sea after intelligence indicated it might be carrying terrorists. The ship was released after a thorough search failed to uncover any suspicious passengers or cargo.
A defense official said it was the fourth vessel searched since Nov. 8 when the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain put out a "notice to mariners" that warned crews declining to be searched "will risk the sinking or seizure of the vessel and will be detained and jailed." Furthermore, it stated, "any perceived hostility toward a US or coalition naval unit during these ongoing operations will result in the destruction of the commercial vessel."
The chaos on the ground in southern and eastern Afghanistan, combined with the uncertainty in identifying the enemy from among thousands of rank and file fighters and civilians, is expected to prove extremely difficult and dangerous.
"One of the difficulties that one has any time you have a whole lot of people all wearing generally the same-looking clothing," Franks said, "is the business of identification, friend or foe."Patrick Healy reported from Kabul, and Farah Stockman reported from Islamabad. Indira Lakshmanan in Islamabad and Bryan Bender in Washington also contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.
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