Taliban forces began surrendering their southern stronghold of Kandahar today amid reports of looting and violence, and continued disagreement over the future of Mullah Mohammed Omar.
A senior Taliban defector said Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who is wanted by the United States for sheltering bin Laden, fled Kandahar sometime before the handover to an unknown location. Other Taliban leaders had also left the city, their last stronghold which they had earlier vowed to defend to the death.
Afghanistan's new interim leader Hamid Karzai said that Omar was missing and would be arrested if found.
"I have no idea where Mullah Omar is, but of course I want to arrest him. I have given him every chance to denounce terrorism and now the time has run out. He is an absconder, a fugitive from justice," Hamid Karzai told The Associated Press by satellite telephone from near Kandahar.
Speaking about the situation in Kandahar, he said, "The Taliban rule is finished. As of today, they are no longer a part of Afghanistan."
Tony Blair said the development was "a total vindication of the strategy ... worked out from the beginning".
Despite the apparent breakthrough, which would avoid a bloodbath in the fight for the southern Afghan city, it was clear that the offer of surrender was not a "done deal".
Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun leader appointed earlier this week to head the country's new government, offered protection to Mr Omar if he "renounced terrorism", but the United States insisted it would not agree to allow him to remain free. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, warned the opposition not to make any such deal with the Taliban leader and threatened to drop its support if it did so. "To the extent that our goals are frustrated and opposed, we would prefer to work with other people," he said.
Negotiations for a possible surrender of Kandahar, which has been the Taliban's military and spiritual stronghold, have been going on for at least two weeks. Mr Karzai, the Pashtun commander appointed earlier this week to head a 30-member interim administration, said the Taliban had offered to hand their weapons to two tribal elders, Mullah Naqib Ullah and Sher Agha. "[The] Taliban have agreed to surrender Kandahar and to hand over power to me,'' Mr Karzai told the broadcaster CNN. "In return we have offered them amnesty and that they can go to their homes without any trouble. I have offered amnesty to the common Taliban."
The deal was confirmed by the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who accepted that the former regime was finished as a political movement.
He said: "We have agreed to surrender weapons not to Hamid Karzai but to tribal elders. Mullah Omar has taken the decision for the welfare of the people, to avoid casualties and to save the life and dignity of Afghans." Asked about the fate of Mr Omar, he replied: "His life will be saved and he will be allowed to live with dignity ... He has worked for the people of Afghanistan and he is not guilty.''
In London, Mr Blair said: "This is a very fast-moving situation. It seems that the final collapse of the Taliban is now upon them." Mr Blair refused to comment on what was rapidly emerging last night as a possible stumbling block to the surrender deal the fate of Mr Omar. He said that he had nothing to add to what the White House had already said.
The Bush administration has long made clear that it will not tolerate a deal that would grant amnesty to the man it holds at least partly responsible for the 11 September attacks. Yesterday, Mr Rumsfeld said the position had not changed. "We have expressed very firmly what our previous views are and what our goals are," he said. "I have not seen anything or heard anything that [suggests] anyone is negotiating anything that is contrary to what our interests are."
The President's spokesman said that Mr Bush believed "very strongly that those who harbour terrorists need to be brought to justice". Asked what that meant in respect to Mr Omar, he said: "The President has left that undefined."
With Kandahar airport reportedly in opposition control last night, the hunt continued in eastern Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden and members of his al-Qa'ida network. Opposition forces said they had captured a number of hills in the Tora Bora region south of Jalalabad and killed 22 foreign fighters loyal to Mr bin Laden.
Mohammed Amin, a spokesman for Hazrat Ali, the local commander leading the hunt for Mr bin Laden, said the Saudi dissident may have fled. "We found the bodies of 22 foreign supporters of Osama in a couple of caves and areas which we took overnight and yesterday afternoon,'' he said. "We believe that Osama may have already left Tora Bora for the Spin Ghar mountains."
In London, Mr Blair's spokesman said the Government was receiving persistent reports that Ayman Zawahri, Mr bin Laden's deputy, had been killed. The Independent reported earlier this week that he had been killed or wounded by American bombing.
Meanwhile, two Afghan leaders condemned the deal done earlier this week in Bonn to appoint an interim administration. The warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose forces dominate much of the north, said his ethnic Uzbek faction was not fairly represented. "We announce our boycott of this government and will not go to Kabul until there is a proper government in place," he said, adding that he would deny the new government access to the north, where Afghanistan's oil and gas are located.
The Pashtun spiritual leader Sayed Ahmad Gailani also said that "injustices have been committed in the distribution of ministries''.
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