Islamabad, Pakistan The Taliban agreed Thursday to surrender their last major bastion Kandahar to tribal forces under a deal guaranteeing the safety of their supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, officials of both sides said.
The fate of Omar remained a major question, with the newly appointed Afghan prime minister saying the Taliban leader would have to distance himself from terrorism but leaving unclear if he would be arrested, as the United States has demanded.
"Those are the details that we still have to work out. I'm not saying anything right now," Hamid Karzai, head of the U.S.-backed interim government that is expected to take over later this month, told The Associated Press.
Until those details are finalized and accepted by all parties including the United States the deal could fall apart. In a series of interviews with AP, BBC and CNN, Karzai refused to say explicitly whether Omar would face arrest or be allowed to remain free.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States would not stand for any deal that allowed Omar to remain free and "live in dignity" in the region.
"Our cooperation and assistance with those people would clearly take a turn south if something were to be done in respect to the senior people in that situation that is inconsistent with what I have said," Rumsfeld said.
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the developments were significant.
"It seems that the final collapse of the Taliban is now upon us," Blair told reporters at his Downing Street office. "That is a total vindication of the strategy that we have worked out from the beginning."
Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, said Taliban fighters would begin handing over their weapons to a local Pashtun leader, Mullah Naqib Ullah, starting Friday. Omar would be allowed to live in Kandahar under Naqib Ullah's protection, Zaeef said.
"Mullah Omar has taken the decision for the welfare of the people, to avoid casualties and to save the life and dignity of Afghans," Zaeef said.
Elsewhere, American B-52s pounded targets in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, where local officials believe Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida lieutenants are hiding.
Anti-Taliban Afghans launched a ground attack Wednesday against al-Qaida strongholds, including the caves and tunnels of the Tora Bora complex.
In Islamabad, Zaeef said the Taliban would not surrender to Karzai.
However, Karzai told AP the Taliban would surrender to him and that he had designated Naqib Ullah and another Pashtun leader, Gul Agha, to collect the weapons. Naqib Ullah maintained good relations with the Taliban during their five years in power.
Karzai said ordinary Taliban fighters would be free to return to their homes but that foreign fighters loyal to bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, must leave the country or face arrest.
"They have to leave Afghanistan," Karzai said of the Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks and others. "They have to face justice. They (must) just stop what they are doing, leave my country and face international justice."
Earlier, Karzai told AP that he would offer ordinary Taliban fighters amnesty but not Omar.
Zaeef said the handover would take three or four days and after that, it would be up to Naqib Ullah to decide who can enter the city. Zaeef also said further talks would be held to determine the fate of Arab and other foreign fighters loyal to bin Laden.
It was also unclear whether the surrender would apply to Taliban units in the town of Spinboldak or in mountain hide-outs scattered throughout southern Afghanistan.
However, Zaeef said the Taliban was finished as a political movement. "I think we should go home," he said.
Until the agreement, Omar had been calling on the Taliban to fight to the death. "The fight has now begun. It is the best opportunity to achieve martyrdom," Omar told his commanders by radio last week, according to a Taliban official.
Zaeef said Karzai agreed to Naqib Ullah's becoming governor of Kandahar. Naqib Ullah, a member of the Jamiat-e-Islami party of the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, led guerrilla forces against the Soviets in the 1980s and now leads one of several groups fighting the Taliban.
At Tora Bora, in the rugged White Mountains near the eastern city of Jalalabad, American B-52s dropped 250- and 500-pound bombs onto an elaborate tunnel and cavern complex, setting off orange flashes and plumes of smoke in the forested mountains.
Dozens of planes flew missions there overnight and Thursday morning after anti-Taliban forces used tanks and mortars to attack al-Qaida guerrillas loyal to bin Laden.
Residents in Jalalabad, 35 miles to the northeast, said shock waves from the bombardment were rattling the windows of their houses.
Doctors at Jalalabad's main hospital said that an officer, from the eastern Shura anti-Taliban group, and five of his men were wounded in an al-Qaida ambush.
Local tribesmen believe bin Laden might be holed up inside the Tora Bora caves with Arab, Pakistani and Chechen defenders. As many as 1,500 tribal fighters pushed down a valley toward the fortified complex.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said U.S. special forces were in the area helping direct airstrikes and were gathering intelligence. He said Afghan fighters had already entered some caves in the hunt for al-Qaida members.
Commanders in the biggest anti-Taliban faction, the northern alliance, however, suggest it is more likely that bin Laden is hiding somewhere around Kandahar, which the Taliban say they will defend to the death.
Meanwhile, U.S. Marines who have been building up a base in the desert outside Kandahar for days have now moved to offensive operations for the first time, helping to cut off roads and communications into the city and cutting off possible Taliban escape routes, U.S. officials said.
Maj. James Parrington, an operations officer at the base, said Marine reconnaissance units were already identifying key pieces of terrain to be used in sealing off the city.
"Opposition groups are now closing in on Kandahar," he said. "We are supporting them by conducting offensive operations."
President Bush launched military operations in Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban rulers refused to hand over bin Laden for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press correspondents Chris Tomlinson, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Kathy Gannon in Kabul and and Christopher Torchia in Quetta, Pakistan, contributed to this report.