Tribal fighters advance on last stronghold

Battle for Kandahar
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The Independent Online

Tribal fighters yesterday said they had launched a major assault on Taliban forces near Kandahar, the stronghold of the supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and claimed to have seized part of the city's airport.

American jets pounded Taliban positions around the airport incessantly, according to travellers from Kandahar. Some told of Taliban fighters moving from house to house, trying to hide among civilians.

"People think it's just like Doomsday. They're in a terrible situation," said Mohebullah, who arrived in the Pakistani town of Chaman. Another arrival from Kandahar, Khalil Ahmed, said: "In the last 24 hours, five minutes haven't gone by without us hearing bombing and the roaring of planes.'' Some shops were still open in Kandahar, travellers said, and the old city's market was bustling. Shoppers spent as little time as possible in the open, however, in case of an air attack.

Khalid Pashtoon, a spokesman for Gul Agha, the former governor of Kandahar, said troops commanded by Mr Agha and another Pashtun leader, Gud Fida Mohammad, had entered the airport area. "At this time, fighting is continuing," he said.

Mohammed Anwar, a tribal ally of Mr Agha, said in Pakistan that front-line commanders told him by radio they had advanced to within two miles of the airport but paused because American advisers said they wanted to bomb Taliban defences before the final attack. "We are waiting for the air attacks to subside," Mr Anwar said. "After that we'll move." Arabs and other al-Qa'ida fighters allied with the Taliban had clashed with Pashtun troops in desert to the west of Kandahar and near the airport, he added.

More than 1,000 US Marines are based 70 miles south-west of Kandahar, but have stayed out of the fighting. To the north of the city, thousands more fighters loyal to another Pashtun leader, Hamid Karzai, were moving south and were about 30 miles from Kandahar, according to his brother, Ahmed Karzai.

They were meeting no resistance as they moved toward the city.

Mullah Omar has vowed to defend Kandahar and has called on his remaining fighters to accept "martyrdom" rather than surrender the last city the Taliban controls.

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