Confusion reigns over whereabouts of Mullah Omar

War on Terrorism: Kandahar
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A former Taliban commander warned on Friday that the leadership of his movement was still in Kandahar with thousands of men and several hundred tanks, and was willing to fight to the death.

Mullah Bismillah was in charge of an ammunition depot in Kandahar until two weeks ago. He said he fled because he had no desire to sacrifice his life for Osama bin Laden. He may be exaggerating the Taliban's strength, but he made it clear there was little or no prospect of a rapid conclusion to the war in the city, which is the movement's spiritual home.

Speaking in Quetta, across the border in Pakistan, Mullah Bismillah said: "They have all kinds of weapons and ammunition to defend themselves. If there is a ground attack by America, they will fight."

Mullah Bismillah said about 200 Taliban soldiers had been killed by US air strikes, and a number of tanks stationed outside the city destroyed. He said he had seen 500 to 600 tanks that were intact. "They [the Taliban] will be fighting for as long as they are alive. There will be a bloodbath," he said.

There have been repeated reports of the Taliban's imminent surrender in Kandahar, none of which have changed the basic situation on the ground.

There was an apparently credible report yesterday that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, had left the city. But the report was later denied by the Taliban-run Afghan Islamic Press Agency, which quoted Mullah Omar's spokesman, Tayab Agha, as saying: "He is still in Kandahar and still has contact with his fighters."

One of the most prominent Pashtun leaders fighting the Taliban in Kandahar, Hamid Karzai, was also unconvinced by the report.

"According to our information, it is not true," Mr Karzai's brother, Ahmed, told reporters in Pakistan.

Meanwhile reluctant Taliban soldiers in Kandahar are being subjected to "a reign of terror" to prevent them surrendering, according to reports. Three Pakistanis who had just returned from Afghanistan told The Washington Post that hardline Taliban leaders and members of al-Qa'ida had interned the wives and children of hundreds of fighters and forced the men to swear on the Koran not to let US or opposition forces take over the city.