Taliban strongholds totter under opposition assaults

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The Independent Online

The rout of the Taliban, which began at the weekend, continued across Afghanistan as Pashtun tribesmen seized power in the eastern city of Jalalabad, Taliban reportedly battled with their former Arab comrades in Kandahar and American forces hunted down fleeing soldiers.

The momentum of a military campaign that has far outstripped the political process, stunning even America, continued to accelerate, as the Taliban's last strongholds in the east and the south of the country tottered. At Kandahar in the south, the Taliban's spiritual capital and headquarters, the airport appeared to have fallen into opposition hands – until news emerged that the Taliban protecting it had defected.

In Kandahar itself, according to the Northern Alliance foreign spokesman, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, whose forces are sweeping across the country: "There is complete chaos ... The Taliban have lost control."

The Afghan Islamic Press reported that the Taliban made announcements over loudspeakers in the city that anyone found on the streets after 9pm would be shot. Taliban in hills outside the city, the second biggest in the country, were said to be firing on the airport.

But Pakistani supporters of the Taliban, who crossed back over the border to Pakistan yesterday, said that up to 50,000 of its fighters were still defending the city. A former mujahedin governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sherzai, who entered Afghanistan from Pakistan on Tuesday, was reported to be heading towards the city with his forces.

The Taliban lost control of Jalalabad, 49 miles (78km) from Pakistan and a Pashtun stronghold, after a local mullah and guerrilla fighter, Yunus Khalis, struck a deal allowing them to withdraw, the Afghan Islamic Press reported. Khalis was one of a number of Pashtun commanders emerging to seize power in the east and south who have no connection with the Northern Alliance.

Meanwhile US jets patrolled the skies, taking advantage of the fact, as the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, put it at a press conference yesterday, that the Taliban were now "visible". In addition, US special forces were on the ground, in southern Afghanistan, hunting for senior members of the Taliban leadership on main roads.

The picture across much of the country was one of chaos and flux, but not so far of large-scale bloodletting. In almost all cities except Kandahar, the Taliban have yielded power without a fight, though in Kunduz, the Taliban's last enclave in the north, Arab fighters fought fierce battles with Northern Alliance troops.

The Taliban's sole remaining foreign envoy, Sohail Shaheen, the deputy ambassador to Pakistan, insisted that the Taliban's lightning disappearance was part of a plan. "There is a new regrouping," he said in Pakistan.

There was no authoritative word on the whereabouts either of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's leader, or of Osama bin Laden. But analysts said the Taliban's collapse made it much more likely Mr bin Laden would be tracked down as fighters with information surrendered or defected.