Marines inch closer to the heart of the Taliban

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The Independent Online

The Taliban's last stronghold of Kandahar was a city under siege yesterday as US warplanes launched some of their heaviest strikes yet and opposition forces moved against the fighters of the former regime. At the same time, the US said it would not grant amnesty to the leader of the Taliban if he tried to negotiate a surrender.

Anti-Taliban Pashtun militiamen said they had captured up to 80 fighters as they moved on the southern city – traditionally the military and spiritual base of the former regime. With the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, having told his men to fight to the last and with no apparent breakthrough in surrender negotiations, the prospect of a peaceful handover of the city seems increasingly unlikely.

"The fight has now begun," Mullah Omar reportedly told his commanders in a message. "It is the best opportunity to achieve martyrdom." Taxi and bus drivers arriving in the Afghan capital, Kabul, yesterday reported fighting in the two-mile area between Kandahar and the airport, where the 80 Taliban fighters were captured, along with five tanks, pick-up trucks and weapons.

"That area is a no-man's land," said Pacha, one of several taxi drivers who said the area was out of bounds. "There is fighting. We can't go there."

A spokesman for Gul Agha, the former mujahedin governor of Kandahar, said he had around 3,000 fighters massed just four miles south of Kandahar airport, but that there were no immediate plans to advance. He also made a clear warning to the forces of the Northern Alliance that they should stay away. "We have enough people in Kandahar and we don't need their help," said the spokesman, Khalid Pashtoon.

The Northern Alliance, however, claimed its fighters had reached the city's eastern outskirts and that "heavy fighting was going on". This could not be verified.

The Pentagon also said that around 1,000 US Marines were now assembled at a desert airfield around 60 miles south-west of Kandahar and within what it called "striking distance". There have been no signs yet, though, that those forces are preparing for a ground assault.

The Taliban, which controlled 90 per cent of Afghanistan when the Allied military campaign started, now holds just Kandahar and the border town of Spin Boldak, where a core of foreign fighters are refusing to surrender.

Yesterday the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said the Taliban's ability to control and organise its forces was greatly reduced. He also said that, should Mullah Omar negotiate a surrender of Kandahar, he would not be granted an amnesty. "I can assure you that the US would vigorously oppose any idea of giving him amnesty of safe passage of any kind," he said.

The Pentagon said that in addition to the move on Kandahar, efforts were also focussing on the cave complex of Tora Bora, close to Jalalabad where Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding. If, or more realistically when, Kandahar falls, coalition forces will be able to concentrate further on Jalalabad. The US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, said on Thursday that he believed Mr bin Laden was probably holed up in the mountains around Tora Bora, near the eastern city.

General Tommy Franks, the US Army officer in charge of the military campaign, has said that he has a number of military options open to him. This includes using Turkish special forces soldiers, who are trained in anti-guerilla mountain warfare.

"I have a plan to use their offering but the time is not just right," he told the New York Times. "At the right point in time... the Turks will be used."

Anti-Taliban forces around Jalalabad also say they are dedicated to capturing Mr bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida fighters. A Mujahedin commander, Hazrat Ali, the head of security for the Eastern Shura [Council] in Jalalabad, said the leaders had "taken the firm decision to eliminate the Arabs as soon as possible".

He added: "If we didn't make this decision ourselves, then the Americans would do it. This is not only a problem for me, but for all the people of Afghanistan. Until we defeat them, we will never be able to relax. We aim to eliminate them, but how is not yet decided. We will do it with bombing, by surrounding them and with ground attack – we will clear them out by whatever means are necessary.

"Only Allah knows how long it will take. People living in that area [Tora Bora] are already complaining about the Arabs, because being close to the Arabs has become a great misery for them.

"And even if it is not a problem now, it will become a problem later."