- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

U.S. military forces battled Taliban fighters fleeing Kandahar yesterday, attempting to block their retreat as opposition Afghan fighters moved to take control of the southern part of the city, the Taliban's last stronghold.
The whereabouts of the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was unknown, as an undetermined number of armed Taliban fighters escaped from the city, said Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan
Gen. Franks said Mullah Omar, who is wanted for supporting the September 11 terrorist attacks, could still be in the city. "We simply don't know, right now where Omar is," he said.
President Bush reiterated yesterday there would be no deals with the ousted Taliban Islamic movement.
"This struggle will not end in a truce or a treaty. It will end in victory for the United States, our friends and for the cause of freedom," Mr. Bush told several thousand sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in Norfolk, Va.
Afghan opposition forces said they had captured al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's main base south of Jalalabad. U.S. officials said efforts to locate bin Laden near the village of Tora Bora in northeastern Afghanistan were making progress.
A U.S. official said the situation in Kandahar was unsettled but that it appeared that from 800 to as many as 2,000 Taliban fighters surrendered there. Others fled the city and were met by convoys of Marines armed with heavy weapons.
"We have engaged forces who are leaving Kandahar with their weapons," Gen. Franks said, noting that the situation was similar to the fall of the Taliban in Mazar-e-Sharif and Kunduz. "As long as these Taliban fighters have their weapons and represent a threat, it's a war. Yes, they will be engaged."
Gen. Franks, echoing earlier remarks by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said yesterday the United States has informed opposition Afghan leaders that al Qaeda and Taliban leaders will not be allowed to go free.
Hamid Karzai, the newly appointed leader of Afghanistan, said Mullah Omar would be arrested if he is found. "He is now a fugitive, and we are looking for him, and he must be put on trial," Mr. Karzai said.
"The Taliban rule is finished. As of today they are no longer a part of Afghanistan," Mr. Karzai told the Associated Press by telephone.
U.S. warplanes continued strikes yesterday against al Qaeda hide-outs near Tora Bora, according to news agency reports from the region.
"The Tora Bora area certainly is an area that's of interest to us," Gen. Franks said. "We have opposition forces in the Tora Bora area, and we have some of our Special Forces people with those forces. We're in coordination with Pakistan, as well as with our opposition forces, watching carefully to do the best we can in this terribly rugged terrain to prevent the escape of these leaders."
Reports from Kandahar said there was fighting in the streets and looting. Opposition fighters also were reported to be engaged in skirmishes in Kandahar.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate the Taliban militia has at least 4,000 armed fighters in Kandahar, which has been under siege since last week.
"We will remove the Taliban, this illegitimate leadership, as the governing power in Afghanistan, and we will destroy the al Qaeda network, and we'll do this as part of a global effort to rid the world of terrorist organizations with global reach," Gen. Franks told reporters at his headquarters in Tampa, Fla., in summing up the military campaign now in its 63rd day.
"We're progressing, progressing well, but we have a long way to go. We're tightening the noose, but the way ahead has been correctly described as one where we'll find a dirty environment and a very dangerous environment," he said.
The Marines, based about 70 miles south of Kandahar, have used both ground vehicles and helicopter gunships in recent firefights, Gen. Franks said.
One of the Marine convoys attacked three cars of Taliban fighters along a road near Kandahar, killing seven persons. It was the Marines' first ground combat since arriving in the country Nov. 25.
"The enemy were shot dead," said a Marine spokesman in Afghanistan. "The forces killed were believed to be al Qaeda and Taliban forces."
Gen. Franks said military commanders will decide in the next several days whether to shift the Marines to different locations or leave them in the current position.
Gen. Franks said the Marine forces would continue to work with opposition forces and remain available to be used inside Kandahar.
Although the use of the Marines in Kandahar is not anticipated, Gen. Franks said, "I would simply leave it on the table. We certainly have not ruled out the possibility of the Marines going into Kandahar.
Additional troops also could be sent.
Some 200 Army Rangers deployed in Oman returned to their base in Fort Benning, Ga., yesterday. The Rangers were part of the publicized Special Forces raid on southern Afghanistan on Nov. 25.
Gen. Franks said the redeployment should not be viewed as a signal that military operations were winding down.
Gen. Franks said some of the foreign fighters caught in Afghanistan "will be treated as criminals" and could face a U.S. military tribunal.
A Taliban commander told an Urdu-language Pakistani newspaper that most of the Taliban fighters had left the city and that they were hiding about 100 miles from Kandahar in a town called Tareen Kot.
The Nawa-I-Waqat daily said the Taliban are planning to attack opposition forces led by Mr. Karzai.

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