Cracks are showing in top ranks of regime

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Are the Taliban cracking under the strain of almost two weeks of relentless US bombardment? Two developments yesterday fuelled speculation that the ranks of the Taliban leadership are now beset by chaos and confusion.

In the first, the Afghan regime's ambassador to Pakistan announced a new plan for peace, only to restate his government's uncompromising position a few hours later.

The second was the revelation by a commander of the opposition Northern Alliance that a delegation of senior Taliban members had crossed the Kabul front line to seek a ceasefire. What they were offering, the commander said, was for the two Afghan sides to put their differences aside, and forge an alliance to fight the American and British infidels. The approach had been firmly rebuffed, the opposition commander said.

Earlier in Pakistan, Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said: "I have brought a plan with me." He was speaking to reporters in the south-western city of Quetta, after returning from a week-long trip to the Taliban headquarters in the Afghan city of Kandahar. "I will discuss it with Pakistani officials and disclose it afterwards," he added.

But later, after arriving in Islamabad, he insisted that his government had no intention of handing over Osama bin Laden, and was united in its determination to resist the US-British assault. "The issue of Osama has not changed," Mr Zaeef said. "It is a matter of our faith – we might as well change our faith."

It has been a week of baffling rumours and contradictory statements in Afghan diplomacy, ever since Mr Zaeef's sudden departure for Kandahar eight days ago. He is the Taliban's only foreign ambassador, and is regarded as being close to the regime's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Early last week, local newspapers and foreign diplomats in Islamabad spoke of a clandestine visit to Pakistan by the moderate Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil.

It seemed as if Mullah Muttawakil might either be on a solo mission to sue for peace, or had perhaps been dispatched by moderates hoping they might survive the annihilation of Mullah Omar and his hardline religious followers. That theory strengthened dramatically when the American Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated for the first time, after talks with the Pakistani President, General Pervez Musharraf, that Taliban moderates could after all, be included in a future post-Taliban government of Afghanistan.

But yesterday Mr Zaeef denied that Mr Muttawakil had ever left Afghanistan, and insisted that there had been no change in Kabul's position. "This is absolutely false," the ambassador said in Islamabad. "He has not been to Pakistan. Our government is strong and united. There is no rift within the Taliban."

He continued. "Muttawakil is in Kandahar. He can die but he cannot defect. The government has complete control. There is no difference, nor any problem within the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan."

Reports from the front line north of Kabul indicated last night that Taliban forces were mounting a counter-attack against the forces of the Northern Alliance. Mr Zaeef denied there was any dwindling in his government's military strength.

"We know this is going to be a long war," he said. "Our technique is that of patience; to use patience to fight our enemies. Our military capability has not been destroyed. We have had a number of casualties in the military field, but our military is still strong. Most importantly, this is a war of beliefs and our faith is very strong."

Mr Zaeef said the American-led air attacks – which Washington says are aimed at Taliban military targets – were exacting a toll on civilians, and accused Washington of making this a deliberate policy.

"The majority of targets have been civilian, hurting innocent civilian people. America is aiming at Afghan people, and the world can see this for themselves."

The scale of the civilian toll has been hinted at by the flight yesterday of more than 3,000 refugees from Kandahar, the spiritual home and powerbase of the Taliban.

Many of those terrified civilians may also have calculated that the Taliban has lost control and there is nothing now to stop a bloodbath.

Not only is there pressure from the air, but the Taliban also face a growing threat from the ground. Northern Alliance forces are confident they can encircle the strategically crucial northern city of Mazer-i-Sharif. With yesterday's confirmation from Washington that US special forces are in that region to bolster the opposition fighters, the pressure on senior Taliban leaders seems overwhelming.

Mystery meanwhile surrounded the reported visit to Pakistan of the Taliban tribal affairs minister, Jalaluddin Haqqani, himself a powerful leader from the majority Pashtun ethnic group. One suggestion is that he may have defected or be in some form of negotiations mediated by the Pakistanis. Some analysts point to the fact that in almost two weeks of bombing the US raids have not targeted the south-eastern provinces that make up his power base.