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RESPONSE TO TERROR | ON THE BATTLEFIELD

Taliban Forces Under Siege in Enclave in North

Afghanistan: Offensive in Kunduz area followed conflicting reports of surrender agreement. Hundreds defect from the Islamic movement.

November 23, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHOGHA, Afghanistan — Opposition fighters went to war against the Taliban's last northern enclave Thursday, shelling the holdouts' positions in and around the city of Kunduz with tanks and heavy artillery as U.S. warplanes dropped bombs from overhead.

Dun-colored mushroom clouds rose against the afternoon haze as jeeps, pickups and even a truck-mounted antiaircraft battery came speeding away from Taliban territory carrying hundreds of last-minute defectors.

"I wasn't safe with the Taliban," explained Ibrahim, the 24-year-old driver of the antiaircraft battery, who said he had been poised for hours, waiting for the artillery strikes to begin to make his dash for the opposition Northern Alliance lines. "Now I am in a safe place. I have nothing to fear here."

The new offensive followed contradictory reports of a surrender agreement with some of the estimated 15,000 Taliban forces entrenched in the Kunduz area. Retreating Taliban forces, including militant foreign fighters, had fled to Kunduz from other northern cities during the opposition's blitz offensive this month.

Earlier in the day, Northern Alliance Gen. Mohammed Daud told reporters that a Taliban leader in Kunduz had received a preliminary commitment of safe passage out of the enclave to travel to the Taliban's other holdout city--Kandahar in the south.

Daud said Taliban commander Mullah Fazil had reached the agreement during a meeting in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif with another Northern Alliance commander, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Daud said the agreement had yet to be finalized. Mazar-i-Sharif, to the west of Kunduz, was the first city to fall to alliance forces.

It wasn't clear whether the talks failed before the afternoon offensive began or whether forces to the east of Kunduz were acting independently of Dostum's men on the western front. Efforts to confirm terms of the alleged deal with Dostum were unsuccessful; a person who answered the satellite telephone at Dostum's headquarters in Mazar-i-Sharif said no one was available for comment.

Originally, Northern Alliance officials had estimated that as many as 30,000 Taliban fighters had fled to the enclave, which includes about half the territory of Kunduz province.

But Daud acknowledged Thursday that such estimates are outdated, in part because of large numbers of Taliban defections in recent days. About 3,000 of those who remain are believed to be non-Afghans--Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and others. It wasn't clear whether the reported surrender agreement reached with Dostum would have applied to the foreign Taliban fighters as well as to Afghan Taliban.

"Our negotiations have not been about the foreign Taliban," Daud said.

In Kandahar, the southern holdout, there were new signs Thursday that the Taliban was struggling to maintain control. The local government, for example, was forced to abandon efforts to arrange a visit by more than 150 foreign journalists to the city, the Taliban's spiritual capital, because it didn't feel confident that it could guarantee the group's safety.

The journalists, who were invited to the Afghan border town of Spin Buldak for a news conference with a senior Taliban figure, along with the expectation that they would visit Kandahar, were instead escorted to the border with Pakistan.

The Taliban also became completely isolated diplomatically Thursday when the Pakistani government ordered the movement to close down its lone remaining embassy, in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. The step formally ends the Taliban's diplomatic contact with its Muslim neighbor.

The Afghan movement's consulates in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar were ordered shut this week. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the only other two nations with diplomatic relations to the Taliban, severed ties shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

U.S. Aircraft Bombs Targets Near Jalalabad

U.S. bombs were dropped Thursday on the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, which fell to the opposition last week. At 11 p.m., a U.S. aircraft dropped two bombs, one landing south and one west, both within 10 miles of the city. One of the resulting explosions came from the direction of Farmajda, which houses a suspected training camp of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The bomb blasts, which shook buildings in central Jalalabad, were the first air attacks in the city in several weeks.

When asked about the bombing in Jalalabad, a Pentagon spokesman in Washington said: "These were not pre-planned targets, as in the case of targets that were known before our planes took off. Instead, they were basically targets of opportunity, such as Taliban or Al Qaeda forces that were seen in the field or tunnels and caves where our pilots thought they might be hiding."

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