Thousands flee city in fear of a 'last stand' bloodbath

War on terrorism
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The Independent Online

Opposition forces continued to move on Kandahar as a flood of refugees fleeing the anticipated bloody fight for the city poured out of the Taliban's final stronghold.

Anti-Taliban tribal militias said they were now engaged in a fierce battle for the city's airport. At the same time, 1,000 US Marines dug in within striking distance of the city, continued to reinforce their position and fly in more light armoured vehicles and Humvees for search-and-destroy patrols hunting Osama bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida fighters.

Pashtun opposition forces are continuing their efforts to arrange the surrender of Kandahar, thus avoiding the bloodshed that would ensue if the Taliban decided to make a last stand in what has long been its military and spiritual base.

Reports say foreign fighters loyal to Mr bin Laden – including Chechens and Arabs – are preventing Afghan fighters from laying down their arms. One defecting member of the former regime also said that the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar Mohammad, was urging his forces to fight to the last to try to save the city.

Haji Mullah Khaksar, the Taliban's former deputy interior minister, told Reuters: "He knows that with or without a fight the Americans will kill him for sure. He would reason that if the Americans are going to kill him or if he is going to die in jail, why shouldn't he die in war? It is, and was, in his character to fight to the death."

Yesterday US warplanes continued to bomb targets in Kandahar, and Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said 8,000 Afghan refugees had gone to Pakistan since fighting around the southern city intensified last week.

"It would appear that 2,000 people or more are leaving Kandahar province every day and are seeking assistance," he said. The refugees talk of growing chaos within Kandahar. Some reports said two key bridges of the city had been destroyed, leaving just one route.

Khalid Pashtun, a spokes-man for Gul Agha, the former Pashtun governor of Kandahar, said their fighters had reached the perimeter of the city's airport and had captured one tower. "Our forces are advancing," he said. "The Taliban and Arab forces are retreating from the airport."

But a senior Taliban official, Maulvi Najibullah, claimed it still controlled the airport. "All Taliban officials are safe and sound," said Mr Najibullah. "The bombing is causing misery only to civilian people."

* Britain has warned the Northern Alliance to behave more humanely to Taliban prisoners. A Downing Street spokesman made it clear that Tony Blair did not condone the killing of surrendered Taliban. "We have urged restraint on the Northern Alliance ... and I think that has been recognised," he said.