Omar 'will surrender Kandahar to tribal leaders tomorrow'

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The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan says that the movement's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has agreed to surrender Kandahar to tribal leaders starting Friday.

But Abdul Salam Zaeef said Taliban leaders had specifically decided not to hand over their weapons to Hamid Karzai, the US-backed head of a new interim government to rule the country for six months. Instead, they will surrender to Mullah Naqib Ullah, a former guerrilla commander against Soviet occupation troops.

Pentagon officials agreed there were discussions about surrender, but reacted with a degree of caution - possibly because of reports that Omar's safety was being guaranteed.

"We have agreed to surrender weapons not to Hamid Karzai but to tribal elders," Zaeef said. "Mullah Omar has taken the decision for the welfare of the people, to avoid casualties and to save the life and dignity of Afghans."

He said the handover would begin Fiday and that Omar would be allowed to stay in the city under tribal protection.

Zaeef said the Taliban was finished as a political movement. "I think we should go home," he said.

Karzai agreed to release all Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan and give them free passage home, Zaeef said. He said Omar had secured unspecified protection for himself.

"I don't know about the guarantees, but Hamid Karzai and the tribal leraders have promised him protection," Zaeef said.

Zaeef said Omar's decision was in response to heavy U.S. bombing of Kandahar, and was intended to prevent more civilian deaths.

Zaeef said he was proud of what the Taliban have done in Afghanistan.

"We have done a lot for the welfare of the people," he said. "In every village, mosque, home and province there is a Talib."

Zaeef said Karzai agreed to Ullah becoming governor of Kandahar.

Previous deals to surrender Kandahar and other cities stalled over the issue of Arab, Pakistan and other foreign fighters loyal to alleged terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Hundreds of al-Qa'ida fighters are believed in Kandahar, especially around the airport where they beat back assaults by tribal fighters under former Kandahar governor Gul Agha.

The United States has made clear it would not support any deal which allowed bin Laden or his lieutenants to escape prosecution. The Americans blame bin Laden for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

The Defence Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has also insisted that Mullah Omar should not be allowed to go free.