Hundreds of bin Laden 'loyalists' surrender

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More than six hundred foreign fighters, believed to be loyal to Osama bin Laden, handed over their weapons to anti-Taliban forces today, the northern alliance said as it marched on the besieged city of Kunduz.

An alliance commander suggested the handover was the beginning of a wholesale surrender of the defenders of Kunduz, but fears remained that other foreign fighters inside the city would choose to fight to the death rather than turn themselves in.

"The 600 foreign fighters, who are Chechens, Arabs, and some Pakistanis, surrendered with their weapons," said Amanullah Khan, a northern alliance spokesman.

The surrender took place in the village of Qalai Qul Mohammed, west of Kunduz, where the foreign fighters were surrounded after breaking through alliance front lines, alliance commanders said.

The surrendering fighters were taken to the nearby city of Mazar-i-Sharif by forces of the three main generals in northern Afghanistan: Rashid Dostum, Atta Mohammed and Mohammed Mohaqik.

More foreign fighters were believed holed up in Kunduz itself, which alliance forces vowed to take after 12 days in which the front lines changed little.

"Maybe tonight or tomorrow we will enter into Kunduz," General Khan said on Kunduz's eastern front line.

The Taliban governor trapped in the city ? whose name, like the Taliban supreme leader, is Mohammed Omar ? said his fighters would walk out "peacefully and unarmed."

Speaking by satellite telephone from inside Kunduz, he told Channel 4 television: "The Taliban brothers who are from other provinces of Afghanistan, they have a way out."

But it was unclear whether he spoke for the foreign fighters as well, who have no such guarantees for free passage out of Kunduz.

Under a deal negotiated between the alliance and the Taliban in recent days, the foreign fighters are to be put in detention camps pending an investigation into their links to bin Laden's al-Qa'ida terrorist network.

Gen. Khan said the foreigners would be tried in "Islamic courts" in Afghanistan.

But many feared the alliance fighters, whose hatred of the foreigner fighters is intense, would slaughter them rather than send them to trial.

An American official in Washington said some of the fighters in the besieged city may be deputies and lieutenants to bin Laden.

Ordering a commander to march on Kunduz today, Gen. Khan said: "Bring up the tanks and troops to go into Kunduz. If the foreigners fight you, fight."

At the United Nations, officials announced a one-day delay in a conference in Germany aimed at paving the way for a new Afghan government following the Taliban's collapse. The meeting will now open on Tuesday because of delays in getting participants to the venue in Bonn, UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.