- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

QUETTA, Pakistan Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar yesterday gave in to daily U.S. air strikes and the armed rebellion by local tribes and agreed to surrender his last stronghold of Kandahar in exchange for amnesty, a deal the United States quickly disapproved.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that the Bush administration would not accept any deal that allowed Mullah Omar to remain free and "live in dignity" anywhere in the region.

Mr. Rumsfeld said the surrender agreement was not "sufficiently mature" to lead to a permanent halt in U.S. bombing on Kandahar. The U.S. goal for Kandahar remains to "see that people who ought not to escape do not escape and to encourage surrender," he said.

"We have as our principal objectives seeing that we deal effectively with the senior al Qaeda leadership and the Taliban leadership and that the remaining al Qaeda fighters do not leave the country and go off to conduct additional terrorist attacks on other nations, including the United States, and that Afghanistan not be a nation that harbors terrorists," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Hamid Karzai, chosen at a U.N. conference on Wednesday to head Afghanistan's first post-Taliban government, negotiated the deal yesterday with a delegation of Taliban leaders and military commanders, who traveled 10 miles north of Kandahar to a site occupied by Mr. Karzai and 4,000 anti-Taliban fighters.

"The Taliban have decided to surrender Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul [provinces] to me and, in exchange, we have offered them amnesty and they can go to their homes without trouble," Mr. Karzai told CNN by satellite telephone.

The handover of power slated to begin today would achieve a major objective of the U.S.-led war on terrorism by wiping out the last big pocket of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, a country that Mullah Omar turned into a haven for international terrorists, who went on to kill more than 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Mr. Karzai said Mullah Omar would have to renounce international terrorism as one condition to receiving amnesty.

However, the agreement appeared to get off to a shaky start. By late last night, an expected surrender announcement by the Taliban had not materialized. And in Washington, Bush administration officials ruled as unacceptable any amnesty offer for Mullah Omar.

Throughout the two-month air campaign, U.S. officials, including President Bush, equated Mullah Omar with his guest, Osama bin Laden.

"The president believes very strongly that those who harbor terrorists must be brought to justice," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Asked whether Mr. Bush believed that category included Mullah Omar, Mr. Fleischer said, "Yes."

The former Taliban ambassador in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad confirmed that a deal had been struck in which Mullah Omar would be allowed a dignified exit.

"This was the decision of the Amir-ul Momineen, to stop the blood[shed] of people in the city and save the lives of the people from the cruel, criminal bombing," said ex-Ambassador Abdul Salem Zaeef, using the mullah's official title, which translates as "leader of the faithful."

Yesterday's announcement marked a reversal for Mullah Omar, who a week ago vowed to defend Kandahar to the death.

U.S. planes have pounded the city, which is revered by militant Islamists worldwide as the birthplace of the Taliban.

Yesterday, bombs stopped falling on Kandahar, and one local opposition commander, former Kandahar Gov. Gul Aga, claimed control of the airport 10 miles southeast of the city.

Other reports from the region suggested that control of Helmand province had already been turned over to local anti-Taliban groups. Helmand, located to the west of Kandahar city and province, is a rich agricultural region where the runoff from snow-capped mountains makes the desert bloom with fruit and vegetables.

Zabul, the third province to be handed over by the Taliban, lies northeast of Kandahar.

The agreement did not touch on the fate of either bin Laden or the Arabs. But Mr. Karzai has said he wants to rid Afghanistan of foreign fighters, especially the Arabs, many reputed to be religious fanatics obsessed with killing Westerners.

"Give me a gun, and I will kill him," one wounded Yemeni Arab said yesterday when asked to meet with a visiting reporter at the municipal hospital in Quetta.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported yesterday that the Taliban had refused to hand over Kandahar to Mr. Karzai directly.

Instead, it is to be entrusted to Mullah Naqeebullah, a former commander from the anti-Soviet campaign in the 1980s who lives in Kandahar but was not part of the Taliban government, AIP said.

Mr. Karzai's younger brother, Ahmad, told reporters in Quetta that Mullah Naqeebullah had been part of yesterday's surrender talks, but no further details were provided.

Despite difficulties in implementing the accord, Ahmad Karzai said both he and his brother were optimistic that the Taliban would keep its word.

The surrender negotiations began yesterday morning when a delegation of five senior Taliban leaders and several Taliban commanders crossed the front lines to meet Hamid Karzai.

As a show of good faith, they brought along three commanders loyal to Mr. Karzai, who had spent the past two years in Taliban jails, and set them free.

The amnesty offered by Mr. Karzai to Mullah Omar and senior Taliban officials reportedly required that they first hand over their weapons. Mr. Karzai is chief of the influential Popalzai clan, one of the few in Afghanistan that never surrendered to the Taliban.

On Tuesday night, just hours before being selected to lead Afghanistan in a six-month transitional government, he was slightly wounded by an errant U.S. bomb that killed three members of the U.S. Special Forces.

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