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Taliban May Surrender Key Southern Area

Afghanistan: Hundreds of Marines take up positions near Kandahar as regime reportedly holds talks on handing territory along Pakistani border to tribal leaders.


CHAMAN, Pakistan — The Taliban appeared to be on the verge of surrendering a key area along Afghanistan's southern border with Pakistan on Monday as hundreds of U.S. Marines took up positions near Kandahar, the Islamic movement's only remaining stronghold.

A spokesman for an anti-Taliban tribal leader announced late Monday that Taliban forces in Spin Buldak, an Afghan border town, had agreed to hand over power in the surrounding area to a local leader of the Noorzai, one of the largest tribes in southern Afghanistan.

Abdul Khaliq, the tribal leader and an official in Afghanistan's government before the Taliban took power, reached a tentative agreement with Taliban officials Monday for the surrender of the border town, said spokesman Zulmai Khan. A final decision on when the hand-over would occur and where Taliban forces would go was still being negotiated and was expected within days, he said.

Truck drivers carrying food aid across the border today turned around after finding the Taliban border post abandoned.

On Monday, the Taliban made no formal announcement. A key official of the movement told reporters at the border that there were no negotiations and no plans to surrender the town. Then he drove into Pakistan in what a friend said was a move to defect, making clear that he at least was not willing to hold out any longer.

Meanwhile, thousands of Taliban troops were moving to mountain redoubts to the east and west of Kandahar, according to reports from people who had seen them on the road. There was widespread speculation that they were headed to protect Osama bin Laden and members of his Al Qaeda terrorism network.

Many Taliban fighters appeared to be holed up in the area around Maruf, a village about 80 miles east of Kandahar in the rugged Afghan mountains near the Pakistani border. Maruf was formerly used as a hide-out by moujahedeen warriors who battled occupying Soviet forces during the 1980s.

During their first full day in Afghanistan, according to U.S. military officials, Marines from the new base at an airfield about 65 miles southwest of Kandahar were involved in a clash with Taliban forces. Marines in low-flying AH-1W Cobra helicopter gunships spotted a column of armored personnel carriers. Two Navy F-14 fighters attacked the column, leaving several vehicles in flames.

A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said that the Taliban convoy, whose exact location was not disclosed, was not approaching the Marine base. It was unclear whether the Marine helicopters were involved in the firefight and whether there were casualties.

In Washington, Pentagon officials said the initial force of about 500 Marines who began landing in Afghanistan on Sunday will be joined by "hundreds, not thousands" more to tighten the squeeze on Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders by limiting their movements from the Kandahar area.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials declined to elaborate further on the Marines' mission, except to say that they will "establish, hold and protect" the airfield as a forward operating base, but not necessarily as the vanguard of a substantially larger American ground force.

U.S. Special Forces have been active in and around Kandahar for weeks, but having Marines on the ground will mean better "interdiction" of traffic around the crossroads city, especially traffic to Iran in the west and Pakistan in the east, Rumsfeld told reporters at a Pentagon briefing.

1,000 Marines to Be Flown Into Afghanistan

On Monday, helicopters and C-130 planes continued to airlift Marines from ships in the Arabian Sea, including the amphibious assault ship Peleliu, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. Additional forces were being flown in from an unidentified land base, she said.

The troop movement was expected to take at least another day to complete, and about 1,000 Marines will be involved, Clarke said. The Marines are part of the 15th and 26th Marine expeditionary units. The 15th is based at Camp Pendleton, and the 26th is from Camp Lejeune, N. C.

Unconfirmed reports from travelers and anti-Taliban soldiers suggested that Marines also were taking up positions Monday at the main Kandahar airport, just a few miles from the city.

"From 4 o'clock in the morning, some airplanes were flying in the sky, and most were unloading equipment. Most were flying over the Kandahar airport, but some were in outlying rural areas," said Haji Wali Mahmud, who was in touch with anti-Taliban commanders on the ground and is a relative of one prominent commander, Gul Agha Shirzai.

Similar information came from Malak Jailani, a tribal chief near the Pakistani border. Jailani said that he had sent between 200 and 300 men to fight with the anti-Taliban forces attempting to advance on Kandahar and that he had been in contact with some of the commanders.

"There were American troops near the [main Kandahar] airport, this is sure," he said.

In other developments:

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