Kabul, Afghanistan On the day that thousands of Taliban soldiers reportedly defected from the hardline Islamic militia, the alliance that controls Afghanistan's capital and much of its countryside agreed Tuesday to attend power-sharing talks next week in Germany.
On the front lines of northern Afghanistan it was fast becoming a winter war. Outside Taliban-held Kunduz, shivering northern alliance soldiers thinned out from forward positions to huddle over fires in their foxholes.
Alliance Gen. Mohammed Daoud said thousands of Taliban have defected from Kunduz in recent days, and defectors' own accounts indicate at least hundreds have fled since Sunday. Dozens of Taliban fighters defected Tuesday.
The day also brought a grim reminder of the chaos and danger pervading the Afghan hinterlands.
The bullet-ridden bodies of four international journalists slain execution-style by gunmen who pulled them from their cars on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul were recovered by militiamen and identified by colleagues. Their deaths brought to seven the number of journalists killed covering the nearly 7-week-old conflict.
In the capital, Kabul, the northern alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah, announced acceptance of a U.N. invitation to talks on setting up a broad-based government to replace the Taliban.
The top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said talks may begin Monday in or near Berlin, with fewer than 30 participants from four different Afghan groupings.
He said he hoped the conference would take the groupings "each one claiming to be fully representative of the whole of Afghanistan" and unite them to choose a provisional administration.
"I very, very much hope that out of this meeting which is not, hopefully, only symbolic we will take some concrete decisions and steps," Brahimi told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council.
The comment appeared to be in response to a statement earlier by the head of the northern alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who grudgingly backed off his demand that the conference be held in Kabul, which he controls.
While agreeing to a meeting in Europe, Rabbani told CNN on Tuesday that such a gathering would only be "symbolic" and that he would still insist that the hard decisions on Afghanistan's future be made in the country.
The Germany conference is open-ended. But Francesc Vendrell, Brahimi's deputy, said at the press conference with Abdullah that it should be completed by Dec. 7. It is aimed at paving the way for a much larger grand council of Afghan groups, which would establish a new government.
Aside from the northern alliance, three other groups will attend the conference all largely made up of Afghan exiles and all including Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. The Taliban, whose leadership was mostly Pashtun, are excluded from the conference.
One delegation will be followers of former King Mohammad Zaher Shah. Also at the conference will be representatives of the so-called Peshawar and Cyprus groups, which are made up of prominent Afghan figures.
The United Nations demands that the northern alliance largely made up of ethnic minorities share power with Pashtuns. It has been trying to find Pashtun representatives not closely linked to the Taliban. Some Pashtun tribes have risen up against the Islamic militia in recent days, but no single leader has emerged.
"We are very aware that convening these groups would not mean that every single Afghan would feel totally happy, totally represented," Vendrell said. "This is the first step. This is not the final step."
Afghanistan has been without a central government since the Taliban pulled out of Kabul on Nov. 13, and Rabbani's faction the alliance's largest moved in. Rabbani was Afghanistan's president until the Taliban ousted him in 1996, and he has never backed off his claim to the post.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, spokesman for the Pentagon, said that three-quarters of Afghanistan is now under anti-Taliban control. He said the situation at the only two major cities still held by the Taliban Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south was a "standoff."
Winter sets in
At the State Department, 21 nations and the European Union assembled to consider a massive assistance program for postwar Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said reconstruction must begin quickly, especially as winter will sharpen the hardship of refugees and other needy Afghans.
"We must act as fast as we can," he said.
On the front outside Kunduz, cold and rain all but halted fighting. U.S. B-52s and attack jets, heard but not seen through thick gray clouds, dropped far fewer bombs than in previous days.
Northern alliance commander Fazal Jan said it was too cold for fighting now, and he was only waiting at the front near Kunduz for hundreds more expected Taliban defections.
An alliance spokesman, Attiq Ullah, said alliance forces would launch what would likely be a bloody assault to take the city if the Taliban did not surrender by Friday.
A hard core of foreign fighters loyal to terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden mostly Arabs, Pakistanis and Chechens is determined to fight to the death and was preventing the Afghan Taliban fighters from surrendering Kunduz, refugees and defectors said.
Brahimi said Taliban commanders in Kunduz had passed a request through intermediaries for the United Nations to negotiate their surrender. But Brahimi said the world body didn't have the personnel on the ground to do so.
The Pentagon might halt some bombing while negotiations continue over Kunduz if the alliance requests it, Stufflebeem said. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said he opposes any deal that would allow Taliban or foreign fighters in Kunduz to escape to do harm in another country later.
Refugee numbers increase
With the easing of the bombardment, refugee families from Kunduz straggled through the pass leading out of the front in the greatest numbers yet.
Children walked wrapped in thin blankets as they paused in what was for some a two-day walk out of the city. Some stopped to rest, lighting fires of rice chaff to warm themselves.
In contrast to recent days, refugees said the foreign fighters did nothing to block their flight. Commander Jan said at least 700 had passed through the part of the front lines manned by his soldiers.