Tuesday, November 20, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan The northern alliance told the Taliban today to surrender their last northern stronghold, Kunduz, in three days or face assault. The alliance agreed today to attend a U.N.-brokered power-sharing conference of Afghan factions in Germany, likely early next week.

Though the alliance announced it would attend the gathering, which the United Nations hopes to hold Monday, the alliance’s head, Burhanuddin Rabbani, said the meeting would mainly be “symbolic.” He insisted real decision-making on a post-Taliban government must take place inside Afghanistan.

Mr. Rabbani has demanded the talks be held in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where his alliance faction is in control after the Taliban fled on Nov. 13. The United Nations has been pressing for a conference on neutral ground in Europe.

His foreign minister, Mr. Abdullah, said the northern alliance would send a single delegation with representatives from all its five factions, which represent different political, religious and cultural groups and sometimes have bitter rivalries. Mr. Rabbani’s faction is the largest in the alliance.

Also today, the bodies of four international journalists were recovered and identified by colleagues, a day after their convoy was ambushed in a narrow mountain pass on the road to the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Alliance spokesman Attiq Ullah said the Taliban had until Friday to surrender Kunduz, their sole remaining redoubt in the north, or face an attack by alliance forces that have been surrounding the city for days.

Foreign fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden mainly Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis had been preventing the Taliban from surrendering, he said.

“If there is a fight in Kunduz, it will be a bloody one because there are 3,000 foreign fighters and they have nowhere to go,” he said from the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The United Nations was asked last night to arrange the unconditional surrender of Taliban forces in Kunduz, the top U.N. envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said today. He said the request was passed from Taliban commanders in the city through a “religious leader” and an another unidentified person.

But the United Nations has no presence on the ground and so “cannot unfortunately accede to this request,” Mr. Brahimi told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council.

The United States has said it opposes any deal that would allow enemy forces to escape particularly the die-hard foreign fighters linked to al-Qaida.

With wintry cold and rain descending on the area, alliance fighters were huddling around fires or pulling back to warmer positions a few miles from the front, thinning their front lines. U.S. B-52’s and attack jets, heard but not seen through thick clouds, dropped far fewer bombs than in previous days.

Refugees from Kunduz straggled through the pass leading out of the front in the increasing numbers. Children walked huddled in thin blankets against the cold, while families stopped to light fires of rice straw.

Refugees said foreign fighters did nothing to block their exit from the city, in contrast to reports from refugees on other days. An alliance commander, Fazal Jan, said 700 refugees had come through today.

Another alliance commander, Gen. Mohammed Daoud, said Taliban had shot 470 of their own fighters in the past days to prevent them from surrendering. Three hundred of them were mowed down together with their commander, he said.

The northern alliance foreign minister, Mr. Abdullah, announced the formal acceptance of a U.N. invitation to the power-sharing gathering during a press conference in Kabul with a U.N. envoy, Francesc Vendrell.

At the United Nations, Vendrell’s boss, Lakhdar Brahimi, said participants in the talks would gather over the weekend and the talks would hopefully begin Monday in or near Berlin.

“We are rather encouraged by what we’ve heard from the various parties, and we hope that this will be the beginning we’ve been looking for to end the conflict in Afghanistan and start building new institutions for the country,” said Mr. Brahimi, the top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.

The northern alliance will be one of four main groups taking part in the conference starting Monday. The other three main groups will be: followers of former Afghan king Mohammad Zaher Shah, and two blocs known as the Peshawar group and the Cyprus group. The latter three are made up of Pashtuns who want a constitutional government.

Representatives of the Taliban will not be there, Mr. Vendrell said.

The Pashtuns are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, and it is widely felt that a government that does not include them will not be viable. Pashtuns made up the backbone of the Taliban, though as the militia has crumbled Pashtun tribes have risen up against it.

Mr. Vendrell acknowledged that the current representation at the gathering would not satisfy everyone. “We are very aware that convening these groups would not mean that every single Afghan would feel totally happy, totally represented,” he said. “This is the first step. This is not the final step.”

In the eastern city of Jalalabad, colleagues identified the bodies of four journalists who had been reported missing and feared dead after yesterday’s ambush: Australian television cameraman Harry Burton and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan photographer, both of the Reuters news agency; Maria Grazia Cutuli of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera; and Julio Fuentes of the Spanish daily El Mundo.

The four were in a convoy of journalists traveling from the eastern city of Jalalabad to the capital, Kabul. Gunmen stopped the four journalists’ cars, ordered them out and tried to force them into the mountains. When they refused, the gunmen opened fire, said two drivers and a translator with the convoy.

In southern Afghanistan, U.S. officials reminded local tribesmen of the $25 million reward for finding bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

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