KABUL, Afghanistan The man ousted as president of Afghanistan five years ago by the Taliban regime returned yesterday to the capital in triumph, a return that raised fresh worries over the effort to build a broad-based, post-Taliban government.
Heading a convoy of vehicles with his image plastered on the windshields, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani arrived in this capital city, capping a stunning week of military and political successes for the Northern Alliance, the oft-divided grouping of anti-Taliban forces that now finds itself in the driver’s seat in the scramble for power inside Afghanistan.
Separately, U.S. officials poured cold water on suggestions by the Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, that Saudi-born financier Osama bin Laden, the ultimate target of the U.S.-led military campaign, had left Afghanistan. The envoy later gave a different version, saying bin Laden had left the rapidly shrinking portion of Afghanistan still under Taliban control and his whereabouts were unknown.
But there was fresh evidence that the manhunt for bin Laden could be nearing its end.
The London Sunday Telegraph reported today that U.S. and British special forces have narrowed their search for the suspected terrorist to an area of 30 square miles in southeastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban, whose military base is now confined largely to its southern stronghold in Kandahar, also confirmed U.S. claims that bin Laden’s military chief, Mohammad Atef, was killed in a U.S. bombing raid three days ago.
In the north, U.S. jets struck around Kunduz, the only other city still held by the fundamentalist regime that has long shielded bin Laden.
As the Taliban struggled to maintain a toehold in Kandahar, the 61-year-old Mr. Rabbani entered Kabul four days after his Jamiat-e-Islami fighters the biggest single faction in the Northern Alliance captured the city.
Mr. Rabbani, who fled Kabul when he was ousted by the Taliban in 1996, arrived in a jeep with blackened windows, part of a convoy of 15 vehicles that included representatives of other factions in the alliance. The vehicles were festooned with pictures of Mr. Rabbani and slain alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood, who was killed in September by a suicide bomber believed to have been sent by bin Laden.
Despite widespread unhappiness with his rule, Mr. Rabbani has never relinquished his claim to the presidency, though he acknowledged yesterday the international calls for a broad-based government that would include all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups.
But it appeared that Mr. Rabbani’s followers intended to enter such negotiations from a position of strength as the de facto rulers of this country.
Mr. Rabbani invited all Afghan groups except the Taliban to a meeting to discuss formation of a new government, but insisted that it be held in Kabul.
The United Nations has been pressing for such a meeting, but on neutral ground, and the Bush administration urged the alliance to drop the demand for Kabul as a venue, a U.S. official said in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The United States and its allies fear that a government dominated by Mr. Rabbani’s movement would trigger the kind of factional and ethnic conflict that destroyed much of the capital during Mr. Rabbani’s previous tenure, from 1992 to 1996.
The country’s Pashtuns and Shi’ite Muslim groups fear the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance will try to cling to power rather than build an inclusive government.
Mr. Rabbani, who still holds Afghanistan’s United Nations seat, is unpopular even within some factions of the Northern Alliance. Many anti-Taliban groups want deposed King Mohammed Zahir, in exile in Rome, to be the figurehead of a new regime rather than the former president.
The white-bearded and white-turbaned Mr. Rabbani told a news conference he had no intention of trying to hang on to power.
“We welcome the formation of a broad-based government as soon as possible,” he insisted.
He said the Northern Alliance would respect the will of a traditional “loya jirga” grand assembly of tribal elders and faction chiefs to decide on a future government. But he did not say when such an assembly would be held.
To stave off further infighting, U.N. envoy Francesc Vendrell was due to arrive in the capital late last night to help work out a plan for a new Afghan government.
Reports that bin Laden had fled the country surfaced after Mr. Zaeef, the Taliban envoy, returned from Afghanistan through the Chaman border post in Pakistan yesterday.
“Osama has left Afghanistan with his children and his wives, and we have no idea where he has gone,” Mr. Zaeef originally told the Associated Press.
The claim could not be independently confirmed, and Mr. Zaeef gave a different version to local reporters, saying bin Laden had left the rapidly shrinking portion of Afghanistan still under the Taliban’s control.
Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said the U.S. military had no evidence that bin Laden, the top suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, had left Afghanistan.
He said the Taliban could be trying to misdirect the hunt for bin Laden to protect him.
“Our search continues,” Mr. Flood said yesterday.
In other developments:
The U.S. Central Command said an errant American bomb damaged a mosque in the town of Khost, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border, on Friday, the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
It said it did not know of any casualties.
Up to 10 French Mirage 2000 warplanes will attack strongholds of bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network in missions beginning in the next two weeks, France’s defense minister said yesterday.
A notebook, including detailed plans of various terrorist attacks in Turkish language, has been found in a camp in Jalalabad deserted by al Qaeda operatives, media reports in Turkey said yesterday.
A day after U.S. military officials disclosed the probable death of Atef, the military chief in bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network, confirmation came from a senior Taliban official.
Mullah Najibullah, a Taliban leader in the southeast Afghan border town of Spinboldak, said seven other al Qaeda members were also killed with Atef.
Atef’s death is seen as a serious setback to al Qaeda. He was suspected of helping plan the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Meanwhile, the Taliban’s hold on Kandahar appeared in doubt after the Afghan Islamic Press reported Friday night that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had agreed to leave the city within 24 hours and head for the mountains.
The move would allow the Taliban to give up control of the city to Pashtuns who have a good working relationship with the group, rather than risk the city being overrun by hostile forces.
However, there was no sign late yesterday of any Taliban withdrawal. Afghan sources, contacted by telephone from Pakistan, said both the pro- and anti-Taliban camps were divided.