TALOQAN, Afghanistan — An advance by Northern Alliance forces surrounding the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan came to a halt Friday after new claims that Afghans fighting for the Taliban had agreed to surrender.
Although the two sides have been discussing a surrender in Kunduz for days, there were contradictory reports on whether several thousand foreign fighters, mainly from Pakistan and Arab countries, also would give up.
The fate of the foreign hard-liners, said to number as many as 3,000 of the estimated 15,000-strong Taliban force in the region, remains the key to a deal. The fall of Kunduz would leave only one city as a Taliban haven, the militia's spiritual center of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
Negotiations on handing over Kandahar also seemed to be on hold, even as people with contacts in the city reported that fears of anarchy were spreading.
Increasing pressure on Kandahar, warlord Ismail Khan is sending several thousand fighters southward from his base in the western city of Herat, Khan's son said.
Northern Alliance negotiators were trying to persuade Taliban fighters in Helmand province, just west of Kandahar, to surrender, said the son, Mirveis.
"If the Taliban choose to stay there and govern, then naturally our forces will attack them," he said.
Near Kunduz, exchanges of fire continued at a low level Friday, the Muslim holy day. Some Northern Alliance fighters lay in hay, basking in the sun, or sleeping. Overhead, the contrails of U.S. B-52 bombers formed vast swirls in the sky.
One day after 200 Taliban fighters changed sides around Kunduz, a senior Northern Alliance commander in Taloqan said Taliban fighters from Pakistan and southern Afghanistan had reinforced the front line to prevent any further defections of local fighters.
Gen. Shohijahan Nasrullah, deputy commander of the Northern Alliance forces in Taloqan, said the remaining local Taliban forces had agreed that they would surrender, but there was still no deal on the foreign fighters.
Northern Alliance commanders are demanding that foreign fighters be handed over as prisoners to face trial. Most Afghan Taliban fighters who surrendered have been allowed to walk free.
In recent days, there have been rumors in Northern Alliance circles of Pakistani planes flying in to evacuate some of the foreign fighters, but those reports could not be confirmed.
One-on-one negotiations on the surrender in Kunduz continued Friday between various Northern Alliance and Taliban commanders. But such agreements often include only the men under those commanders' direct control.
Hard-Line Taliban May Plan Fight to the Death
Because the foreign fighters face jail or possibly death, U.S. intelligence reports conclude that they intend to fight to the death, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said this week. Another deadline for a surrender agreement was this afternoon, with Northern Alliance officials threatening to attack if the Taliban refused to surrender.
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon has received credible reports that foreign Taliban leaders have killed local fighters who were seeking to defect. In the central mosque at Taloqan, where Northern Alliance fighters were among the more than 1,000 people who came to pray Friday, the mullah strongly criticized the Taliban forces, accusing them of burning houses and killing people.
The Northern Alliance commander to the west in Mazar-i-Sharif, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, told the Associated Press that the Afghan Taliban had agreed to hand over the foreign fighters, but that final details still were being worked out. Nasrullah said a key Taliban commander, Mullah Fazil, agreed Thursday to surrender.
"They promised that the Afghan fighters would surrender in the near future. But the foreign fighters decided against that," he said.
Pentagon officials have told the alliance that they would oppose any deal allowing foreign fighters, many of whom are believed to belong to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, to go free, spokeswoman Victoria Clarke has said.
The Taliban fighters were pushed into the northern pocket of land and cut off when the Northern Alliance made a rapid advance, seizing control of much of Afghanistan this month.
U.S. airstrikes continued Friday around Kunduz and elsewhere in Afghanistan. On Thursday, the latest date for which figures were available, about 70 planes attacked targets chosen by pilots and liaisons on the ground, including allies and U.S. Army Special Forces.
The number of planes used in airstrikes has remained steady over the past week, with about 50 tactical jets flying from aircraft carriers, five to 10 long-range bombers leaving from distant airfields and about the same number of land-based tactical jets.
Cargo planes dropped leaflets in and around Kunduz and Kandahar. Some of the leaflets promote rewards of up to $25 million for senior Taliban leaders, such as Mullah Mohammed Omar, and Al Qaeda leaders, including Bin Laden.