- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 1, 2001

QUETTA, Pakistan The Taliban militia yesterday indicated that it might surrender if its fighters were allowed to retreat to the mountains surrounding Kandahar, as U.S. forces and local tribal fighters continued to besiege its last stronghold.
Taliban leaders floated the idea yesterday in negotiations with representatives from two local Afghan tribes. The offer to leave Kandahar came with the understanding that once its fighters have safely entrenched themselves in the mountains and U.S. forces have left, the Taliban would stage a comeback.
In a separate but related development, local opposition commander Hamid Karzai warned that he planned to move "very soon" on Kandahar with 5,000 troops. U.S. warplanes' bombing sorties to soften Taliban defenses and clear the way for tribal forces have thus far concentrated on the city's airport. A U.S. Marine base now being established outside the city is available if more air support is needed in the ground campaign.
Taxi and bus drivers arriving in Kabul from Kandahar yesterday reported fighting on Thursday in the two-mile area between the airport and Kandahar.
"That area is a no-man's land," said Pacha, a taxi driver.
Christiane Berthiaume, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program (WFP) in Geneva, described the situation around Kandahar as a nightmare for aid workers. She said the WFP simply could not operate there at the moment.
Mrs. Berthiaume also said that one of the main transport corridors from Quetta to Kandahar and on to Herat , near the northwestern border with Iran, is still closed.
"Drivers are scared and we do rely on their judgment," she said.
Mr. Karzai who secretly entered Afghanistan in October to start a tribal revolt against the militant Islamist rulers was excluded from yesterday's talks in Kandahar. The Taliban faction has insisted that his tribe be excluded from any future Afghanistan government.
The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, this week urged his followers to defend the city to the death, and people interviewed on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border here spoke as if Kandahar would fall within the next few days. Many expressed fears of a bloodbath.
The region lies beyond the reach of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance, placing pressure on local Pashtun tribes, such as Mr. Karzai's, to force out the Taliban, a feat accomplished in recent weeks by Pashtuns in several other regions.
"We have already handed over cities to people we like, with whom we have an understanding and who are not hostile to us," said Taliban spokesman Mohammad Anwar in the Afghan border city of Spin Boldak.
"From October 7 to November 7, nobody was able to win an inch of land from us unless we agreed to hand it over, in the best interests of the Afghan people," Mullah Anwar said in an interview.
President Bush began the air campaign on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to hand over Saudi-born fugitive Osama bin Laden, who is believed responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Bush administration has said that Taliban leaders should not be given safe passage in exchange for leaving Kandahar.
After a month of bombing, the Taliban fled cities in the north, west and east, but until now, it had refused to contemplate abandoning Kandahar.
"We are considering the conditions they are imposing on an agreement to leave Kandahar," said Asadullah Achazai, a local supporter of exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah, a candidate to head the first post-Taliban government. "We are trying to convince the Taliban that they should not opt for bloodshed and in exchange they will get safe passage to the mountains," he said. "Ultimately the Taliban will have to go to the mountains. They know they can't live in the city. That's why they left cities all over the country."
Mullah Anwar, the Taliban spokesman, said the Taliban would not disappear, even if it left Kandahar.
"We will come back and take the cities again no problem," he said. "We took charge of Afghanistan five years ago in just days and we can do it again in just days."
Since the standoff with the United States, Taliban soldiers have deserted their ranks, clerics have rejected bin Laden, and local tribal elders, many of whom earlier supported the hard-line Islamic regime, now want the militia out of town.

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