Taliban in retreat from Kandahar

War on Terrorism: Battles
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The Taliban declared last night that they were ready to abandon their spiritual and military stronghold of Kandahar – a move that would all but confirm an end to the regime's tyrannical five-year rule.

After days of being pounded by American air power, the Taliban's supreme commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was reported to be ready to flee the south-eastern city for the surrounding mountains.

An announcement by the official Taliban press outlet, the Afghan Islamic Press, signalled an acceptance by the regime that it is no longer a credible force inside Afghanistan.

An agreement to hand the city over to two former mujahedin commanders from the same Pashtun ethnic group as the Taliban has been brokered during the past two days to avoid a bloody battle for control of the city and more civilian casualties from daily US bombing. The Taliban were also aware that the ethnic Tajik leader Ismail Khan, who is in control of Herat, had threatened to march on Kandahar.

However, last night, battles were continuing around the city as Taliban forces were attacked by locals trying to prevent their retreat. An opposition tribal leader, Hamid Karzai, said: "Some Taliban forces are moving up north and probably they are leaving Kandahar city. But there are some skirmishes .... The people have stopped the Taliban retreating and have caused a skirmish."

US special forces were also reported to be involved in firefights with al-Qa'ida and Taliban forces while efforts to find Osama bin Laden intensified.

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said: "US troops are killing Taliban that won't surrender and al-Qa'ida that are trying to move from one place to another."

Confirmation of the use of special forces in the direct hunt for Mr bin Laden underlines that the US and British military campaign has entered a new and different phase.

With the Taliban having been broken in all but two cities inside Afghanistan, the focus now is to find Mr bin Laden and take on the hardened core of foreign fighters still loyal to him. US special forces are also interrogating a number of captured Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters. But it is also apparent there are growing tensions on the ground in Afghanistan, with various factions battling to ensure prominence in any post-Taliban administration.

In one such example, a spokesman for the Northern Alliance, Mohammad Habeel, said it had not been informed of the arrival of British troops. He said: "The British troops came here to provide security ... for humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Their arrival was their own decision and they did not inform us about this. Maybe they will go back."

The pursuit of Mr bin Laden, who has vowed to fight to the death, is no easy matter. It is believed al-Qa'ida fighters are likely to try to regroup in the mountains in the south-east of the country, close to Kandahar.

"They bob and weave and move and that's what they're doing," Mr Rumsfeld said. "They are moving a great deal and we are clearly reducing the square miles of geography that they can function in.

"The opportunity clearly is that you have a chance to interrogate people who have been captured. You have an opportunity to go through a lot of paper and materials that are left behind and it adds to your knowledge," he said. Asked whether US forces were closer to capturing Mr bin Laden, Mr Rumsfeld said: "Until you catch the chicken, you don't have the chicken."

While US warplanes also continued to launch strikes against in the northern town of Kunduz, where Taliban troops are still fighting the Northern Alliance, Mr Rumsfeld said efforts were still being made in the south of the country to encourage anti-Taliban forces. "They are moving into towns, villages and cities and putting pressure on the Taliban to leave, which they are doing," he said. "The total effect of it, is that it is becoming less and less hospitable for al-Qa'ida and Taliban to be around."

The fast-moving events in the Taliban heartland came as tensions continued to grow between the rival tribal leaders over the future government of Afghanistan. An international stabilisation force is moving into the country. Last night, Britain prepared to add another 1,000 troops to the 4,000 already on stand-by.

The military commanders are said to be still considering whether Royal Marines or paratroopers will form the nucleus of the task force. However, the pressure to deploy all 4,000 troops on stand-by, as well as the further 1,000 troops, may mean that both the marines and the paratroops will end up in Afghanistan.

Senior defence officials are also concerned by the increasing likelihood of clashes between factions of the Northern Alliance, especially involving the Jamiat-i-Islami party, which now controls Kabul, and the Hazaras, who accuse them of reneging on a deal not to enter the capital.

A warning yesterday by Wali Masood, the Afghan ambassador to London, and a member of the Jamiat, warning British and other coalition forces to "keep out of Kabul", may is seen by some as posturing, but the commanders are genuinely unsure of the reaction the troops will receive once they move towards Kabul.