Last pocket of Taliban in north remains defiant

War on terrorism: Kunduz
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The Independent Online

Zeroing in on the only real pocket of Taliban resistance remaining in northern Afghanistan, US warplanes pounded targets Thursday near the town of Kunduz, repeatedly hammering at tank and troop positions.

Even as the Taliban hold on Afghanistan crumbled, the Islamic militia's supreme leader called the retreats of recent days part of a larger strategy to destroy America. The Taliban also reportedly rejected any form of coalition government with the country's former leader.

Despite a series of stunning setbacks that cost the Taliban their grip on the capital and deprived them of huge swaths of territory, the Islamic milita's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, remained defiant.

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Pashto­language service, he said the pullback from Afghanistan's urban centers was in line with an overall strategy to destroy America.

"If God's help is with us, this will happen within a short period of time – keep in mind this prediction," he said. "The real matter is the extinction of America, and God willing, it will fall to the ground."

The BBC asked the questions through an intermediary over a satellite phone, who passed them on to the Taliban leader through a hand­held radio. Earlier Thursday, the private Afghan Islamic Press agency reported that Omar was in a safe place and in charge of his troops.

Just who was in control of particular areas was difficult to pin down. The Taliban were reported to have left the eastern town of Jalalabad, but one Shiite Muslim northern alliance leader, Saeed Hussein Anwari, told the AP in Kabul on Thursday that the city's status was unclear.

Francesc Vendrell, the deputy UN special representative for Afghanistan, told Associated Press Television News that Jalalabad "is clearly not in Taliban hands, but it's a little confusing to know in whose hands it is."

In Afghanistan's south, American airstrikes hammered the area around Kandahar, killing eight civilians and injuring 22, the Pakistan–based Afghan Islamic Press said. That claim could not be confirmed.

On the eastern border, Pashtun tribesmen once loyal to the Taliban were said to be rising up against them, and Taliban fighters were reported taking shelter in the mountains. Anwari said the border provinces of Paktika, Paktia and part of Logar were all in control of anti­Taliban Pashtun forces.

Another northern alliance commander, Sayaf Baick, said an anti­Taliban offensive was imminent on the front outside Kunduz, the only northern town of significant size remaining under Taliban control. It lies between the alliance­held cities of Mazar­i­Sharif and Taloqan.

Baick claimed Taliban fighters had killed several city officials in Kunduz who wanted to surrender to the alliance – a claim that could not be verified. He said the alliance was trying to persuade the Taliban by radio to give up.

Refugees said the American warplanes bombed Taliban positions dozens of times, hitting troops and tanks.

With the Taliban having fled Kabul, speculation has grown that Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghanistan's president from 1992–96 and titular head of the northern alliance, will return to the capital.

Anwari, the Shiite Muslim northern alliance commander, said Rabbani was remaining in the Panjshir Valley, a staging ground for the alliance during its long anti–Taliban campaign in the north, because of the alliance's promise not to take power in the capital.

He warned, however, that if the United Nations and the world community failed to act soon to fill the power vacuum, the alliance would have to establish a government.

The Afghan Islamic Press quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying any coalition with Rabbani would be impossible.

"Jihad is mandatory against him," it quoted the spokesman, identified only as Abdullah, as saying. "Our leadership has decided to carry on the struggle.

Abdullah added that even if the Taliban lose their grip on all Afghanistan's cities, they would wage guerrilla war from the mountains.

Elsewhere, elements of the northern alliance have consolidated their power by taking over the defense and interior ministries in Kabul – temporary measures, the alliance insisted, until a UN­supervised political settlement representing all ethnic groups.

Street fighting was reported in the southern town of Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace and spiritual home, but no independent confirmation was possible. Vendrell, the deputy UN special representative, said he had been told that there were northern alliance forces in Kandahar.

Many of Afghanistan's 23 or more ethnic Pashtun groups appeared to have risen up against the Taliban, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said Wednesday in Washington. "Whether or not they're working in concert, we don't know."