Confusion in race to Taliban's final bastion in north

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"To Kunduz," the soldiers shouted. The news had just arrived that the road to the Taliban's last stronghold in the north was clear and a convoy quickly formed, led by five old Russian tanks belching great clouds of black smoke.

Soldiers clung to the sides of trucks, or perched precariously on top. One who looked no older than 14 swung a rocket launcher carelessly above his head. Less than a mile down the road, they ground to an ignominious halt, fearing there might still be Taliban in the hills.

This was the advance on Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in the north, under siege for the past 12 days. Last night the pro-Taliban Afghan Islamic Press agency said some 2,500 troops under General Abdul Rashid Dostum had captured the centre of Kunduz, although other reports said the Alliance would not enter the city until today. Khanabad, the eastern gateway to Kunduz, 12 miles away, had fallen in the meantime to the Tajik commander Mohammed Daud.

Curiously, there was little sign yesterday of the foreign volunteers believed to be linked to Osama bin Laden, who were said to have vowed to fight to the death. There have been widespread fears of a massacre since the United States Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said he would prefer the foreigners to be killed than allowed to escape.

In Khanabad, where foreign fighters were believed to be manning the front lines, witnesses described a gunfight in the main bazaar as retreating Taliban counter-attacked Northern Alliance troops.

"When we first arrived, the town was deserted," said one young Afghan. "But then suddenly people started shouting the Taliban were coming and running. There was shooting. I was so scared I could feel my heart hitting against my ribs.'

Another witness described hearing someone shout: "Run! Run! The Taliban are coming!" The Alliance said it captured Khanabad later in the day.

Sarafaraz, a young Talib who had surrendered just before the final advance started and who was in a long convoy of trucks and jeeps smeared with mud to camouflage them from patrolling American planes, said he was dismayed by what appeared to be the failure of the Taliban's last stand in the north. He had no idea why the Americans had been bombing him; he was not even aware of the 11 September attacks. In fact, he seemed a little disbelieving when we told him about them.

As he spoke, another surrendering Talib behind him stuck out his tongue and made faces at us.

There were rumours that some foreign fighters, possibly Chechens, surrendered in the convoy along with Sarafaraz, which the Northern Alliance vehemently denied. Some of those surrendering did not look Afghan, but we could not get them to speak to us.

General Daud, the Alliance commander besieging Kunduz from the east, yesterday reiterated accusations that General Dostum had allowed foreign volunteers to escape from the west, where his forces are massed.

The Alliance's squabbling and jostling for position is now plain for all to see. For all the stop-go nature of the advance yesterday, the race was on to get to Kunduz first.

General Daud threw caution to the wind, personally leading his troops to Khanabad as night fell, down a road where the Taliban cut them down in an ambush less than two weeks ago.

General Dostum is a far more powerful warlord – but General Daud is loyal to the Tajik leadership of the Northern Alliance which now controls Kabul. General Daud claimed yesterday that General Dostum had agreed to hold back and allow him to get to Kunduz first.

Whether Kunduz can be taken peacefully will be a crucial test of what will happen in Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual capital in the south, and their last stronghold after Kunduz.

The Taliban have agreed to surrender Kunduz without a fight, under a deal negotiated by Mullah Mohammed Fazil, the "butcher of Yakaolang", who presided over the massacre of at least 147 people in January, including a 16-year-old boy who was skinned alive.

But it remains to be seen whether the foreign volunteers emerge to fight to the last for Kunduz.

If not, the Northern Alliance will have to produce some more prisoners, or explain what has become of the thousands it said were in Kunduz.