Bangi, Afghanistan U.S. warplanes bombed targets Thursday near the city of Kunduz, where Taliban fighters and followers of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network were apparently set to make a stand at one of their last pockets of resistance in northern Afghanistan.
In the south, the Taliban appeared in control of their birthplace, Kandahar. However, Taliban fighters there have been surrounded by local Pashtun tribesmen, according to an anti-Taliban source in Pakistan.
The source, who spoke on condition he not be named, said the tribesmen were trying to persuade Taliban leaders to hand over bin Laden. The claim could not be independently confirmed.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference Thursday that the United States will find bin Laden even if he leaves Afghanistan.
"I think we will find him, either there or in another country, Rumsfeld said.
Earlier Thursday, Rumsfeld's spokeswoman told reporters that U.S. airstrikes on two buildings killed some senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.
The spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said she had no numbers or identities of those killed in the strikes on buildings near the capital Kabul on Tuesday and Kandahar on Wednesday. But she said there was no evidence that bin Laden was among them.
Meanwhile, ending a three-month drama that has overlapped with the standoff between the United States and bin Laden, eight international aid workers who had been accused of preaching Christianity in Afghanistan arrived in neighboring Pakistan after being freed by anti-Taliban forces and plucked to safety by U.S. special forces helicopters early Thursday.
"It's like a miracle," said Georg Taubmann, one of the freed workers. The group two Americans, two Australians and four Germans, including Taubmann was airlifted out of the town of Ghazni in central Afghanistan amid a chaotic anti-Taliban uprising.
Despite a series of stunning setbacks that cost the Islamic militia its grip on the capital and deprived it of huge swaths of territory, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was defiant in a BBC interview broadcast Thursday, saying he'd rather die than "join an evil government" with the country's former leader.
The Taliban pullback from urban centers, he also said, was part of a larger strategy that aims to destroy America.
"If God's help is with us, this will happen within a short period of time keep in mind this prediction," he said. "The real matter is the extinction of America, and God willing, it will fall to the ground."
Omar also ruled out taking part in a multiethnic government like the one the United Nations has proposed for Afghanistan.
"The struggle for a broad-based government has been going on for the last 20 years, but nothing came of it," he said. "We will not accept a government of wrongdoers. We prefer death than to be a part of an evil government."
The BBC asked the questions through an intermediary over a satellite phone, who passed them on to the Taliban leader through a hand-held radio. Earlier Thursday, the private Afghan Islamic Press agency reported that Omar was in a safe place and in charge of his troops.
In Afghanistan's north, the showdown over the city of Kunduz could prove the first bloody ground confrontation of the nearly 6-week-old military campaign against the Taliban and bin Laden mainly due to the heavy presence of bin Laden fighters in the town.
Rumsfeld described the fighting there as "fierce."
Earlier, anti-Taliban forces said they were preparing to launch an offensive against the front line outside Kunduz, the region's only city of significant size remaining under Taliban control. The front line was just west of Bangi, a village about 30 miles east of Kunduz, which lies between the northern alliance-held cities of Mazar-e-Sharif and Taloqan.
U.S. warplanes launched dozens of strikes against Taliban tank and troop positions in the area, refugees and witnesses said.
"On one hill there were a lot of Taliban, and after the U.S. bombs hit, there was nothing living there," said refugee Jaglan Mohammed Sakhay, 20.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander of the Afghanistan campaign, told a Pentagon news conference that the pocket of resistance in the Kunduz area included 2,000 to 3,000 of mostly al-Qaida fighters.
The foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida included Arabs, Chechens, Burmese, Pakistani and Chinese, said Gen. Daoud, a northern alliance commander.
Sayaf Baick, a northern alliance commander, said the foreign fighters had killed several local Taliban officials in Kunduz who wanted to give up the city.
"For the foreign terrorists ... there will be no negotiations, we will not deal with them, they are killers," Daoud said, citing their alleged role in the assassination of northern alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massood.
"The foreigners are living between life and death. They are desperate and they are trying everything," Daoud told a news conference in Taloqan.
Just who was in control of particular areas was difficult to pin down. The Taliban were reported to have left the eastern city of Jalalabad, but one Shiite Muslim northern alliance leader, Saeed Hussein Anwari, told The Associated Press in Kabul on Thursday that the city's status was unclear.
In the south, Kandahar came under heavy bombardment again Thursday, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said. It claimed eight civilians were killed and 22 injured, a claim that could not be independently verified.
In the southwest Pakistani city of Quetta, across the border from Kandahar, the anti-Taliban Afghan source said the Kandahar airport had fallen under the control of Taliban rivals, but that bin Laden-allied forces were giving orders inside the city.
Pakistan, meanwhile, was beefing up its border defenses closest to Kandahar, apparently fearing that unrest could spill across the frontier. Paramilitary troops were also headed to the border in the northwest.
In the western city of Herat, which the northern alliance claimed earlier this week, music was blaring from houses, shops and taxis Thursday. Many of the songs heard were outdated, as if tapes hidden for years had been unearthed.
Shops are open many doing a brisk business in CDs and tapes.
Just four months ago, Herat businessman Abdul Ahmed said the Taliban threw him in jail because they found a cassette tape on him.
"I was held for four days in jail. I was beaten so badly that you can't even imagine," he said.
With the Taliban having fled Kabul, speculation has grown that Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghanistan's president from 1992-96 and titular head of the northern alliance, will return to the capital.
Anwari, the Shiite Muslim northern alliance commander, said Rabbani was remaining for the time being in the Panjshir Valley, a staging ground for the alliance during its long anti-Taliban campaign in the north, because of the alliance's promise not to take power in the capital.
He warned, however, that if the United Nations and the world community fail to act soon to fill the power vacuum, the alliance would have to establish a government.
President Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to surrender bin Laden, sought in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.