Feared warlord threatens march on stronghold

War on Terrorism: Kandahar
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One of Afghanistan's most feared warlords, already in control of Herat, last night threatened to march on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.

The mujahedin commander and ethnic Tajik leader Ismail Khan declared yesterday that he intended to march on the Taliban's spiritual home and occupy it if necessary.

The prospect of the Taliban's old enemy heading towards them may have help persuade the leadership to abandon the city in the hope its population would be spared. Khan was driven out of Herat in 1995, jailed by the Taliban in 1997, but escaped last year in a now-legendary feat.

Under constant bombardment from American warplanes for weeks now – US jets hit the Taliban foreign ministry building and a mosque yesterday – the Taliban leadership may have decided that the advance of Ismail Khan would be the last straw. Thus the dramatic move to cut and run and avert the feared bloodbath.

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, apparently agreed to depart within 24 hours, following "in-depth" discussions with "close friends and army commanders". Under the deal, reported by the Taliban news agency, control of the city will pass to Mullah Naqibullah and Haji Basher, two former commanders of Afghan resistance forces in the war against Soviet invaders who are not members of the Taliban.

Bashar is close to Yunus Khalis, a Pashtun leader who took over the north-eastern city of Jalalabad this week. The agency said Omar agreed to leave within 24 hours.

The loss of Kandahar could be the ultimate blow to the Taliban movement as a regular army. The city has always been the spiritual home and military base for Mullah Omar's militia. He is believed to have only ventured once to the capital Kabul. Without Kandahar, the Taliban would be reduced to a guerrilla movement, although a potentially dangerous one.

A ferocious battle for the city had seemed inevitable with an array of tribal leaders vying for control of the city. Armed followers of the tribal leader Hamid Karzai and the former Kandahar governor, Gul Agha, have established positions in southern Afghanistan to take on the Taliban, witnesses arriving in Pakistan said yesterday.

The forces of the two commanders entrenched themselves after the Taliban refused to surrender, the witnesses said.

Pashtun groups – united by their hatred of the Northern Alliance opposition grouping – are intent on being first into Kandahar.

Ismail Khan, whose forces seized Herat during the week, said his forces were about to head across the so-called "Desert of Death" to Kandahar.

"We all belong to Afghanistan," he told a news conference in the garden of a secluded villa in Herat. "So we shouldn't consider occupying Kandahar as an invasion."

Asked whether he would press on with his offensive, Khan said: "Absolutely. If the terrorists do not leave Kandahar then we'll go there to liberate it."

Even the anti-Taliban groups in the south – mainly ethnic Pashtuns like the fundamentalist militia – are suspicious of the predominantly ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance, which took control of Kabul on Tuesday after a lightning advance across the country.

Underlining the ethnic rivalries that make building a coherent government so difficult, a group of southern tribal leaders who support the return of the exiled former King, Zahir Shah, said they would send a delegation to Kandahar to discuss a peaceful settlement with the Taliban.

They warned the Northern Alliance to stay away, although they predict battles in Kandahar.

There will be fighting in Kandahar," said Usman Kakar, a member of the powerful Kakar tribe and a senior official of the Pashtun Khawa Milli Awami party, which represents Pakistan's Pashtun tribes politically. "But they cannot resist for long. All the tribal Pashtuns want a loya jirga so there can be peace, they don't want more war over there," Kakar said.

All day yesterday, travellers arriving at the Pakistan border from Kandahar said the number of Taliban soldiers in the city had increased, and troops were fortifying defensive positions with sandbags and patrolling the streets round the clock in jeeps and pick-up trucks.

"They're fully equipped. There is no shortage of arms," said Abdul Wali, 18, who arrived from Kandahar on Thursday with a relative who was injured by an American bomb.

"The Taliban authorities announce daily to the city residents: 'Stay calm and God's help will arrive. These losses are temporary. Everything is under control,"' said Wali, standing beside the hospital bed of his cousin, Hafiz Abdullah.

Wali brought Abdullah, who suffered a shrapnel wound in his right leg, to the Sandeman Provincial Hospital in Quetta, in Pakistan, because he feared for their safety in Kandahar. US bombs damaged at least one hospital there, he said. Those arriving in Quetta said there was plenty of food in Kandahar, though many people could not afford to buy it.

Some were moving to the suburbs to get away from Taliban positions that might be targeted by US bombs, but others were just as worried by rumours that Northern Alliance forces might be heading toward Kandahar. "They prefer the Taliban over the Northern Alliance because at least the Taliban brought peace," Lalai said.

Despite their harsh edicts and strict interpretation of Islam, the Taliban imposed calm on the areas they controlled, a relief to a population plagued for years by warfare and banditry. But anti-Taliban forces seized the airport this week and anti-Taliban Pashtun fighters surrounded the city. Some reports – mostly from American sources – have even spoken of fighting in the streets of the dusty, shabby city.

The objective of the delegation of tribal elders set to travel Kandahar tomorrow had been to try to persuade Mullah Mohammed Omar to surrender. If the mission failed, the Pashtuns could not rule out a violent uprising.