- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 6, 2001

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar agreed today to surrender his last major bastion Kandahar to tribal forces and put himself under the protection of tribal leaders, Afghanistan's interim leader and a Taliban official said.

Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed head of a new interim government, told The Associated Press that an agreement had been worked out for surrender of the southern city and that government forces would enter tomorrow.

“Taliban have agreed to surrender Kandahar and to hand over power to me,'' Mr. Karzai said.

He said the agreement calls for anti-Taliban commanders Mullah Naqib Ullah and Sher Agha to collect weapons from the Taliban.

“I will not be going for a few days,'' he said.

The agreement was confirmed by Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, who said the Taliban were finished as a political movement. “I think we should go home,'' he said in Islamabad.

Mr. Karzai said Taliban fighters would be allowed to disband and return to their homes. He earlier told CNN that Omar would also be afforded protection if he promised to “renounce terrorism'' and that Osama bin Laden's foreign fighters would have to leave the country.

“They are criminals,'' he said.

Mr. Zaeef said Taliban fighters would begin handing over their weapons to a local Pashtun leader, Mullah Naqib Ullah, starting tomorrow.

Mr. Karzai said he did not know the whereabouts of either Omar or bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Mr. Zaeef said the handover would take three or four days and after that, it would be up to Naqib Ullah to decide who can enter the city. Zaeef also said further talks would be held to determine the fate of Arab and other foreign fighters loyal to bin Laden.

It was also unclear whether the surrender would apply to Taliban units in the town of Spinboldak or in mountain hide-outs scattered throughout southern Afghanistan. The United States has also strongly opposed any deal under which bin Laden or Omar could go free.

Mr. Zaeef said the deal would not allow for Karzai to enter the city without Naqib Ullah's permission.

“We have agreed to surrender weapons not to Hamid Karzai but to tribal elders,'' Mr. Zaeef said. “Mullah Omar has taken the decision for the welfare of the people, to avoid casualties and to save the life and dignity of Afghans.''

Until the agreement, Omar has been calling on the Taliban to fight to the death. “The fight has now begun. It is the best opportunity to achieve martyrdom,'' Omar told his commanders by radio last week, according to a Taliban official.

Mr. Karzai agreed to release all Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan and give them free passage home, Zaeef said. He said Omar had secured unspecified protection for himself.

In an earlier interview today at his base 12 miles north of Kandahar, Mr. Karzai said that he was offering a general amnesty to Taliban fighters who surrender but not Omar. He had been meeting with Taliban officials for two days.

Speaking to AP by satellite telephone, Mr. Karzai stressed that the amnesty offer applies only to the Taliban troops. Asked about reports he was offering amnesty to Omar, Karzai replied: “It's not true.'' The amnesty offer, he said, is for the soldiers, many of them young men from rural regions of southern Afghanistan, where his own Popolzai tribe is located.

Mr. Zaeef said he knew nothing about Karzai's statement “but Hamid Karzai and the tribal leaders have promised him protection.''

He said Omar's decision was in response to heavy U.S. bombing of Kandahar, and was intended to prevent more civilian deaths.

U.S. aircraft have been pounding the Kandahar area intensively for weeks to soften Taliban defenses and support Afghan fighters advancing on the city.

However, there was no bombing in the Kandahar area today. The pause could either have been to facilitate negotiations or possibly in response to Wednesday's accidental bombing of anti-Taliban forces in which three U.S. special forces troops and five Afghan fighters were killed.

Mr. Zaeef said Mr. Karzai agreed to Naqib Ullah's becoming governor of Kandahar. Naqib Ullah, a member of the Jamiat-e-Islami party of the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, led guerrilla forces against the Soviets in the 1980s and now leads one of several groups fighting the Taliban.

Previous deals to surrender Kandahar and other cities stalled over the issue of Arab, Pakistan and other foreign fighters loyal to bin Laden.

Hundreds of al-Qaida fighters are believed in Kandahar, especially around the airport where they beat back assaults by tribal fighters under former Kandahar governor Gul Agha.

The United States has made clear it would not support any deal which allowed bin Laden or his lieutenants to escape prosecution. The Americans blame bin Laden for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has also insisted that Mullah Omar should not be allowed to go free.

Mr. Zaeef said he was proud of what the Taliban have done in Afghanistan.

“We have done a lot for the welfare of the people,'' he said. “In every village, mosque, home and province there is a Talib.''

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