TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell secured a promise Saturday from Uzbek President Islam Karimov that today his nation will reopen the Friendship Bridge, the key land link for transporting humanitarian aid to war-ravaged northern Afghanistan during the frigid winter.
"We discussed the humanitarian situation, and in that regard the president confirmed that the bridge would open tomorrow after one last technical check," Powell told a joint news conference here in the Uzbek capital. "This will ease the flow of humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, and I thanked the president for this decision."
The United States and other Western nations have been trying for weeks to get Uzbekistan to reopen the bridge, even before the rout of the Taliban from the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif eased the way for international aid to cross the border. According to various relief agencies, hundreds of thousands of Afghans are in desperate need of food and other necessities.
Uzbekistan closed the bridge, which crosses the Amu Darya River, in 1997, after the Taliban consolidated its hold on about 90% of Afghanistan and began supporting Uzbek Muslim radicals and trying to export its strict Islamic ideology across the border.
Karimov has delayed reopening the span on the grounds that it might have structural problems and needed to be checked. U.S. engineers have deemed it structurally sound, but the Tashkent regime insisted on checking it again before allowing traffic to cross.
Without the bridge, aid supplies have had to be transported across the river by slow barges. And winter temperatures could cut off that route.
According to U.S. officials, however, Karimov was also concerned that the post-Taliban anarchy and instability in the north might spill across the border.
Instability remained the keynote Saturday in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that was the fallen regime's last stronghold before the Taliban surrendered it a day earlier.
Hamid Karzai, the tribal chief who is scheduled to take over a new interim government in Afghanistan on Dec. 22, arrived late in the day to join discussions about a ruling council for the city.
In an interview with the BBC, Karzai deplored the number of rival tribal chiefs setting up checkpoints in Kandahar and in the border town of Spin Buldak, along the Kandahar highway.
"If I fail to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, especially what is happening now in Spin Buldak and Kandahar, I will resign my post," he said. "Due to these checkpoints, Afghanistan has been destroyed. The Taliban movement was a result of these checkpoints. We will fight against the rule of the gun."
Karzai also said he had extended an open request to the Afghan people to help capture Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that the U.S. has obtained a videotape of Bin Laden that offers the most conclusive evidence yet of his connection to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. On the tape, obtained during the search of a private home in Jalalabad, Bin Laden praises Allah for success far greater than he expected, using language that indicated he was familiar with the planning of the attacks, according to government officials who have read transcripts or been briefed on its contents.
Two Rivals Divide Control of City
Control of Kandahar remained split Saturday between the forces of Mullah Naquibullah, in the western third, and those of Gul Agha Shirzai, who held the governor's residence and the eastern two-thirds of the city.
Shirzai has refused to accept the conditions of the Taliban surrender agreement that designated Naquibullah as interim chief of the city, saying Naquibullah is too close to the Taliban.
But Mohammed Yusef Pushtoon, a spokesman for Shirzai, predicted that the two sides would be able to reach agreement during the talks among tribal and religious leaders, scheduled to wind up today, aimed at creating a ruling council. Shirzai does not object to Naquibullah's serving on the council as long as there is representation from all sides, Pushtoon said in a satellite telephone interview.
"Flatly and frankly, the whole of this group will go with the ruling of this council, even if Naquibullah is involved," he said. "I am sure they will find a way out of it by discussion and reason. All sides have a commitment to peace."
Meanwhile, at the airport southeast of town, tribal forces allied with Shirzai continued to surround about 300 foreign fighters hunkered down in the terminal building, which is believed to have been used by Al Qaeda as a housing complex.
Fighting broke out when Shirzai's troops attempted to move in from the northern half of the airport, which they control, Pushtoon said. Four of them were injured, while six to seven Arabs were killed, he said.
"We decided it was a waste of time," he said. "We have decided to wait and keep them under siege, and maybe they will surrender."