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Archive for Friday, December 7, 2001

Taliban forces abandoning Kandahar

December 7, 2001

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— Taliban forces abandoned their last bastion Friday, fleeing the southern city of Kandahar and leaving chaos in their wake. Afghanistan's interim leader said Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is missing and will be arrested if found.

Elsewhere, U.S. Marines killed seven Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who were fleeing Kandahar in what was their first ground combat in Afghanistan. And in the mountainous east, fierce fighting and heavy U.S. bombing raged around Tora Bora, a cave hide-out occupied by al-Qaida fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden.

``The Taliban rule is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan,'' Hamid Karzai said in a satellite telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Karzai confirmed that chaos had broken out in several areas within Kandahar as a result of Taliban soldiers and leaders fleeing. He said there was no fighting between rival forces.

Frightened residents, however, reported some looting had taken place and said gunfire could be heard.

Fleeing Taliban fighters backed out of a deal to hand in weapons to another opposition tribal leader, Karzai said from a desert base outside the city.

``The Taliban ran away with their weapons,'' he said. ``Basically they have just run away. The leaders and the soldiers. They have all run away from the city.''

``All of last night they were fleeing the city,'' he said. ``I thought they were coming here to attack us. But they weren't. They were running away.''

Like when the Taliban fled the capital, Kabul, they ransacked shops, homes and businesses, he said.

A member of the new council that took over the city said Friday Kandahar was ``calm and peaceful.''

The Afghan Islamic Press quoted Basheer Ahmed as saying that the Taliban had surrendered their weapons. He said the council has deployed its men at the airport and military garrisons, including the army corps. There was no resistance and the transfer of power was done peacefully, he said.

``The Taliban rule has ended in Kandahar.''

Karzai said Omar's whereabouts were unknown.

``But, of course, I want to arrest him,'' he said. ``I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time has run out. He is an absconder, a fugitive from justice.''

The Taliban had begun surrendering Kandahar, the last city under their control, earlier Friday after two months of U.S. airstrikes and advances by opposition forces drove them from most of the country. A day earlier, they had agreed to abandon the city provided regular fighters received amnesty and Omar's safety was guaranteed.

Karzai had refused to say at the time what would happen to Omar. That drew a sharp response from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said the United States would oppose any deal allowing Omar to go free.

``If you're asking, would an arrangement with Omar, where he could, quote, 'live in dignity' in the Kandahar area or some place in Afghanistan be consistent with what I have said, the answer is no,'' Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference Thursday.

Rumsfeld said Washington was prepared to re-evaluate its relationship with anti-Taliban groups who allowed Omar to escape punishment.

Karzai did not know where bin Laden's al Qaida warriors would head but he speculated they would likely move toward the mountains of Zabul province, which would give them an eventual escape route to neighboring Pakistan.

The murky surrender pact made no mention of bin Laden or the hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreign fighters who follow him. It also sowed confusion about what would become of Omar.

On Friday, Karzai said he has set up a tribal commission that will go to Kandahar to take control of the city with a day or so.

Other Taliban leaders had also left Kandahar, their last stronghold, which they had earlier vowed to defend to the death. Taliban personnel were returning to their homes, said Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, who defected from the Taliban to join the opposition northern alliance. Like Karzai, he speculated that Arabs of al-Qaida, as well as Chechens and Pakistanis who have been fighting with the Taliban, would likely try to escape into neighboring Pakistan. Or, he said, they could go northwest toward Bagram in neighboring Helmand province where they could hid in the towering mountain peaks.

No U.S. Marines were injured in their desert clash with Taliban fighters.

Three Taliban vehicles approached a ``hunter-killer'' Marine patrol on a road Thursday night, and the Marines attacked from the ground and air, said the spokesman, Capt. David Romley.

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