Cracks appear in Taliban as Minister appeals for bombing pause

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The US sought to prise open apparent cracks in the Taliban regime as it emerged that a senior Afghan official had left the country to appeal for a pause in the bombing campaign.

Signs that the Taliban government might be crumbling included news of a clash in Kandahar between Taliban police and armed Arabs, and a secret visit to Pakistan by the Afghan foreign minister, Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil.

He was reported to have asked for a three-day pause in the bombing campaign to allow him and other Taliban officials to travel to Kandahar from Kabul in an effort to persuade the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohamad Omar, to hand over Osama bin Laden. It is thought that he visited Pakistan briefly on Sunday.

In the first sign that Washington believes its relentless bombardment of Afghanistan may be creating dissension in the ruling movement, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said that members of the Taliban government should not automatically be excluded from a successor government. There should be no barrier to Taliban officials who would be willing to serve in a government "where the rights of all are respected".

General Powell was speaking after talks with Pakistan's military president, General Pervez Musharraf, who agreed, saying that a broad-based post-Taliban government could include "moderate Taliban leaders". Their comments were seen as providing encouragement to members of the Taliban who might wish to defect.

The US added a new weapon – the low-flying AC-130 Spectre aircraft, which carries huge firepower – to its continued pounding of Afghan targets. Its deployment was the clearest signal yet that the way is being opened for special forces.

Yesterday, however, one bomb missed its mark and wrecked a warehouse in Kabul belonging to the International Committee of the Red Cross. One staff member was slightly wounded by flying glass.

Since the bombing began, the Taliban has repeated an offer to send Mr bin Laden to a third country for trial if the US showed what evidence it had against him, but President George Bush has consistently refused to enter negotiations.

General Powell's offer to Taliban moderates provides important reassurance to Pakistan, which presided over the birth of the Taliban and still fears the disruption created in Afghanistan will enable the Northern Alliance to seize power.

The US is engaging in a flurry of diplomacy to ensure that the political agenda keeps up with military action. On his way to Pakistan and India, General Powell announced he had appointed a senior diplomat, Richard Haass, as his personal envoy to the United Nations to negotiate the shape of a new government in Afghanistan.

Mr Haass, who will retain a similar role in the Northern Ireland negotiations, is expected to work closely with the UN's special envoy on Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi. The former Algerian foreign minister is trying to agree a framework for a post-Taliban administration with Afghanistan's myriad factions.

General Powell's visit to Islamabad sealed a turnaround in US-Pakistan relations since 11 September. To enlist the crucial support of Afghanistan's neighbour in the war against terrorism, Washington is at the point of removing all the sanctions it imposed after Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in July 1998: General Powell said yesterday military co-operation could soon resume.

Although India suffered the same restrictions, also now lifted, they were far more onerous on Pakistan, where the economy is in crisis. It will now receive more than $1bn (£690m) in debt rescheduling and new US aid.

Despite such sweeteners, General Musharraf's sharp swing towards the US and away from Afghanistan remains unpopular at home. "Certainly a majority of the people are against the operation in Afghanistan," he conceded yesterday. There have been violent clashes with Pakistan's radical Islamist parties, and senior generals, including the head of military intelligence, who were considered sympathetic to the Taliban, were removed.

But General Musharraf said Pakistan would co-operate with US military efforts in Afghanistan "so long as the operation lasts". But he added that he hoped the campaign would be short. Mr Powell agreed, saying: "Obviously we want it to be short ... precise."

As fast as the US shores up one part of its coalition against terrorism, however, it risks eroding another. Mr Powell's mission was partly aimed at stemming a flare-up between Pakistan and India, its nuclear rival, over Kashmir, but the two sides have been exchanging artillery fire across the line of control since Monday.

India has been watching the reconciliation between the US and Pakistan with increasing frustration, claiming the global war against terrorism should look at Pakistan's support and training for Muslim militants.