BANGI, Afghanistan Northern Alliance troops yesterday closed in on Taliban and al Qaeda fighters trapped in Kunduz, seizing an outlying town without a fight. Alliance commanders said they expected the city to surrender this weekend.
Alliance warlord Gen. Rashid Dostum last night said the surrender “is settled,” following a meeting with Taliban representatives in the alliance-held northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
“Tomorrow, we will have another meeting to work out the details of the handover,” he told the Associated Press. “On Sunday, the Taliban should surrender to us and hand over the prisoners.”
An American official in Washington said some of the fighters in the besieged city the Taliban’s last major garrison in the north may be deputies and lieutenants to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Commanders of the rigid Islamic militia have agreed to leave the northern city without their weapons in exchange for safe passage guarantees, according to both alliance and militia officials. The alliance deal calls for the Taliban to turn over the Arab, Pakistani, Chechen and other foreign fighters, who will be detained pending an investigation into their links to bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network.
The Taliban governor of Kunduz, whose name is also Mohammed Omar, late last night confirmed the garrison was prepared to surrender but said nothing about the fate of the foreigners.
“The Taliban brothers who are from other provinces of Afghanistan, they have a way out,” Mr. Omar said in a satellite telephone interview with Britain’s Channel 4 television. “As a result of the talks with Gen. Dostum, they are allowed to get out of Kunduz peacefully and unarmed.”
Negotiations on the surrender of Kunduz had been deadlocked over issues of territory and the status of some 3,000 to 4,000 foreign forces. A surrender of Taliban forces was announced Wednesday, but fighting erupted Thursday at the town of Khanabad.
Prior to the reported settlement, U.S. bombers launched air strikes on foreign-backed Taliban forces in Kunduz, dropping 500-pound bombs from B-52s, according to defense officials. Some bombing raids also took place in southern Afghanistan near Kandahar.
Daoud Khan, the Northern Alliance commander east of Kunduz, predicted an even quicker resolution in Kunduz, saying his troops would move toward the city today to disarm the Taliban and arrest the foreigners.
In advance of the expected surrender, Mr. Khan said his troops yesterday moved into the Taliban-held town of Aliabad after militia fighters there gave up without a fight. Gen. Dostum said his fighters were moving toward Kunduz from the west to enforce the surrender deal.
Mr. Khan said the foreigners would be tried “in our Islamic courts.”
“These foreigners have committed criminal acts in our country. We will not hand them over to the United Nations or any other country,” Mr. Khan said.
However, another alliance official, Amanullah, said if the al Qaeda members surrender, “we will kill them all” because “they invaded Afghanistan.”
An American official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some of bin Laden and Mullah Omar’s deputies and lieutenants have been caught up in Kunduz. The official declined to provide specific names.
The United States has insisted that suspected al Qaeda members not be allowed to go free as part of any deal. President Bush launched military operations against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden for his purported role in the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Wednesday that despite the negotiations, the Taliban and foreign troops should “either surrender or they ought to be fought.”
“Any idea that those people should be let loose on any basis at all to leave that country and to go bring terror to other countries and destabilize other countries is unacceptable,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters during a visit Wednesday to Fort Bragg, N.C.
A militant Islamic group in Pakistan, which claims to have sent thousands of Pakistanis to fight alongside the Taliban, threatened to target Afghan refugees in Pakistan if its supporters are executed in Kunduz.
“People are angry and will target Afghan refugees belonging to Northern Alliance areas if our people are executed or treated unfairly,” said Maulvi Mohammed Khalid Khan, a leader of the militant Islamic group Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammedi.
Northern Alliance forces yesterday also moved south toward the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
“Northern Alliance forces are heading in that direction,” said a U.S. official familiar with reports of forces deployed toward Kandahar.
U.S. special forces troops have stepped up activities in the region of Kandahar as part of covert efforts to capture or kill Taliban or al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden, defense officials said.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s government has arrested several Arab and foreign fighters, including al Qaeda terrorists, who have fled Afghanistan.
Pakistani security services have arrested almost a dozen al Qaeda and foreign fighters, including numerous Pakistani nationals, attempting to flee Afghanistan disguised among the thousands of refugees, a Pakistani newspaper source reported.
cBill Gertz contributed to this report.