Taliban leader 'will not leave Kandahar'

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The Independent Online

Reports that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was ready to hand over his southern stronghold of Kandahar to Pashtun tribal leaders and flee to the mountains were dismissed yesterday.

"It's completely wrong. It's a baseless report," said Abdullah Hamad, the Taliban consul general in Quetta, Pakistan. In Washington, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, of the Pentagon, also dismissed the idea that Mullah Omar was about to flee, saying: "I don't believe it."

And a spokesman for Mullah Omar himself said "the Prince of the Believers" and his senior officials were still in Kandahar "and the provinces around it which are under our control. They have not left".

Pashtun leaders exiled in Quetta have chosen to negotiate with the Taliban for control of Kandahar. Yesterday they were waiting for a peace envoy to arrive in Pakistan so a settlement could be reached. The Pashtun tribes want their ethnic kin in the Taliban to hand over Kandahar peacefully so that they have a power base to equal that of Kabul, now in the hands of the Tajik and Uzbek leaders of the Northern Alliance.

The group sent an envoy to Kandahar on Friday, offering the Taliban a chance to surrender. They support the establishment of a loya jirga, or grand council, presided over by the former king, Zahir Shah. The American-led coalition and the UN also hope this can be established, to decide on the shape of a future government of Afghanistan.

The warlord Ismail Khan halted his forces on the way to Kandahar yesterday in the apparent hope that the city would be handed over to the Pashtuns. His fighters occupied the town of Daralam on the borders of Farah, Nimroz and Helmand provinces.

The Taliban drove Mr Khan out of the western city of Herat in 1995 and jailed him in 1997, but he escaped last year. The veteran mujahedin commander took back his old power-base last week and vowed to march on Kandahar. He is now thought to favour Pashtun rule instead.

The Taliban did admit yesterday that its fighters had retreated from Farah in the south-west and moved to the neighbouring province of Helmand.

They also continued to lose ground elsewhere: Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun leader who supports the claims to power of the former king took control of Uruzgan province; and Jalalabad was taken over by Haji Qadeer, the former governor, whose brother Abdul Haq was ambushed and executed by the Taliban last month.

Meanwhile, the Northern Alliance claimed that 300 Afghans who tried to flee the besieged northern city of Kunduz and defect from the Taliban were massacred by foreign volunteers they had once fought beside. Kunduz is the only other city beside Kandahar still under Taliban control, but it has been surrounded for several days.

Afghan Talibans inside Kunduz have been negotiating for its surrender, using satellite telephones and emissaries who travel across the mountains to meet the enemy. American aircraft continued to fly over the city yesterday.

But General Baryali, one of the Alliance's most senior commanders, alleged that Kunduz is now under the control of foreign volunteers from Pakistan and Arab countries, who are refusing to surrender. The 300 men who tried to escape were taking advantage of an Alliance offer of amnesty for any Afghan Taliban who defected by the end of yesterday, according to the general. The amnesty did not apply to the foreigners.

The 300 made it out of Kunduz but ran into a group of volunteers just outside the city, General Baryali said. The defectors said they were going off to fight the Northern Alliance, but the foreigners opened fire on them. All 300 were killed in the ensuing fight, along with four volunteers. Similar claims were made to the BBC's Persian service radio by another Northern Alliance commander, Mamoor Hassan.

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