Tribal chiefs fear bloodbath as Omar's troops prepare to make last stand at spiritual home

War on Terrorism: Kandahar
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The Taliban made a desperate last stand for Kandahar, their spiritual home, yesterday, while tribal elders reportedly tried to avert a bloodbath by negotiating a peaceful surrender of the city.

There were uncorroborated claims that local Pashtun fighters had switched sides and staged an uprising. According to an opposition source in Pakistan, Taliban fighters have been surrounded by local Pashtun tribesmen, who were trying to convince their leaders to hand over Osama bin Laden. The claim could not be independently confirmed.

But Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, was still believed to be in Kandahar trying to regroup his troops. "The command is still in the hands of Mullah Omar. The Taliban are completely obeying him," a Taliban spokesman told Afghan Islamic Press (AIP).

Pictures released by the satellite television station al-Jazeera appeared to confirm that the city was still in control of Mullah Omar's men. They showed heavily armed soldiers patrolling the streets and setting up checkpoints. The manager of the central hospital told al-Jazeera that Kandahar was still in Taliban hands.

The US airforce continued yesterday to hammer Kandahar and its surroundings, killing eight civilians and injuring 22, according to AIP.

General Richard Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said there was "a lot of focus on the south to assist some of the tribal leaders and consolidate their support down there". Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, added that anti-Taliban Pashtun groups, "are frankly coming out of the woodwork rather quickly now".

One of their leaders, Hamid Karzai, who is trying to get Pashtun leaders to support the return of the exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, said yesterday that the people of Kandahar had already revolted against the Taliban. "There is a state of disorder in the city. The people have totally risen against them, they have taken to the streets," he said.

Mr Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan, added that the Taliban were withdrawing heavy equipment and that Kandahar's airport had been taken by his troops.

Mohammad Daud, a Northern Alliance general, said that "the Taliban fighters are fleeing the city". Non-governmental organisations relayed reports that hundreds of families were fleeing Kandahar because of fighting.

On the border to Pakistan a growing number of refugees from Kandahar arrived saying that there were noticeably fewer Taliban fighters in the city. Morale was low and several commanders had left the city to seek refuge in the mountains, they added.

However, Pakistani Taliban fighters crossing the border claimed that Mullah Omar and his troops were holding on to the city.

The battle for Kandahar could be decisive to Afghan-istan's future. It was in Kandahar that the student-based movement of the Taliban first took hold. Until now, it has been the spiritual and military stronghold of their organisation.

Since Kabul is now in the hands of the Northern Alliance (mainly made up of Uzbeks and Tajiks), Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, are determined to keep Kandahar in their grasp. Whoever takes Kandahar will have great influence in the formation of any future Afghan government.

Two Pashtun commanders are attacking this key city. On one side, Mr Karzai and his men have been moving in from the north towards Kandahar. According to Northern Alliance officials, they are apparently being reinforced by US helicopters. Mr Karzai has been inside Afghanistan for a month already, trying to stir up a revolt against the Taliban.

From the south, another Pashtun commander, Gul Agha Shirzai, is leading a convoy of dozens of trucks with an estimated 500 soldiers. He represents the political party of Ahmed Gailani, the head of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, a largely Pashtun party. The two men are coordinating their efforts, both backing the return of the king. With the support of troops in Kandahar – if they manage to take control of the city – the exiled king, now based in Rome, could finally be sure of a power base, something he has been clearly lacking.

The Pashtun leaders converging on Kandahar are trying to negotiate with the Taliban to give up the city. "I was in contact with Taliban commanders in order to convince them that what they are doing is not benefiting Afghans or Afghanistan," Mr Karzai said.

The commanders, many of whom once supported the Taliban, said they would send a peace mission of tribal elders from six provinces to Kandahar in the next few days.

"Our message to commanders still with the Taliban is that they should give up," said Abdul Khaliq, who is a supporter of the exiled king.

"All of them are our brothers of one blood. We are all one Afghanistan and should have one leader and that is Mohammed Zahir Shah," he said.