Sunday, November 25, 2001

• Bin Laden loyalists hole up in the north as President Bush warns of difficult times ahead.´

BANGI, Afghanistan More than 1,000 Taliban fighters surrendered to U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces besieging the Afghan town of Kunduz yesterday as President Bush warned Americans of “difficult times ahead” as his war on terrorism accelerated.

Despite the surrenders, thousands of Taliban troops loyal to Saudi-born terrorist Osama bin Laden, including Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs, were holed up in the northern enclave and refused to give up as a deadline passed, keeping alive fears of a blood bath. Northern Alliance fighters loathe the foreign soldiers.

“The Afghan Taliban have decided to surrender,” one Taliban fighter who laid down his arms said. “The foreigners have taken the decision to fight. They will not surrender.”

The fall of Kunduz, the Taliban’s last bastion in the north, would permit Northern Alliance forces and U.S. warplanes to concentrate on forcing the radical militia out of its last strongholds in and around the southern city of Kandahar.

U.S. air raids entered their 49th day in the campaign to punish the Taliban for harboring bin Laden, who is the prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on the United States that killed more than 3,900 people.

Mr. Bush cautioned Americans celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday that the U.S. war on terrorism declared in response to the attacks was far from over in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“We will face difficult times ahead,” the president said in his weekly radio address. “The fight we have begun will not be quickly or easily finished.”

With the Taliban folding under withering fire, preparations went ahead during the weekend for talks, between rival Afghan factions, to be held by the United Nations Tuesday in Bonn. The talks are aimed at producing a “road map” for a transitional Afghan government, excluding the Taliban.

Although bin Laden’s whereabouts remained a mystery, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ruled out yesterday the possibility that bin Laden had slipped over the border into Pakistan.

“We’ve made all arrangements to seal the border and to ensure checks. That includes even the army doing this,” Mr. Musharraf said. “Also, we have got the cooperation of the local tribals holding the border areas to ensure that no such thing happens.”

In the south, U.S. warplanes have been applying relentless pressure around Kandahar, which the Taliban has vowed to defend at all costs out of duty to its strict interpretation of Islam. A town between Kandahar and the Pakistan border was reported taken by Northern Alliance troops, cutting off Kandahar from resupply from Pakistan.

In raids on Friday, about 65 long-range bombers targeted caves and tunnels that might provide hiding places to bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.

As part of the air campaign, a powerful “Daisy Cutter” bomb was dropped this week near Kandahar designed to devastate an area 600 yards across and demoralize enemy forces. It was the third used in the campaign so far.

U.S. special forces have stepped up operations, conducting lightning raids to cut Taliban supply lines by blowing up transport trucks and oil tankers.

In Kabul yesterday, the Northern Alliance showed off its prize defector, former Taliban Deputy Interior Minister Mullah Khaksar.

Hundreds of Taliban troops who were dug in at the dusty town of Maidan Shahr, west of the capital, Kabul, downed arms and agreed to join Northern Alliance fighters a common practice in the civil war that has wracked Afghanistan for a decade.

About 600 Taliban troops, including foreign as well as Afghan fighters, headed west to a surrender site near Mazar-e-Sharif, base of Northern Alliance warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum.

“We will now separate the local Taliban forces from the foreigners,” Gen. Dostum said. “We will also find out where the foreigners are from, and we will find out how many Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks and Uighurs there are, and we will separate them all.”

Northern Alliance commanders said 800 Taliban fighters surrendered east of Kunduz, bringing with them eight tanks, five anti-aircraft guns, seven rocket launchers and 40 vehicles.

One foreign Taliban fighter who surrendered killed himself and two other prisoners in a suicide grenade attack, Britain’s Independent Television News reported. A British reporter was injured in the attack.

Under surrender terms negotiated over the past week, Afghan Taliban fighters will be disarmed and freed.

“We will send home the Afghan Taliban soldiers who were not killing ordinary people and were forced to fight and also those who came from madrassas [religious schools],” Gen. Dostum said.

Foreign soldiers who surrender would face an Islamic court, he said.

A report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that up to 600 bodies had been found in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, captured two weeks ago by the Northern Alliance, underscored concerns about a potential blood bath.

The U.S. military said it might use the western Pacific island of Guam to lock up members of bin Laden’s al Qaeda network who are captured in Afghanistan.

Commenting on the legal aftermath of the conflict, Richard Goldstone, a South African judge who was chief prosecutor for the U.N. war-crimes tribunal, said a plan announced by Mr. Bush earlier this month to try foreign terrorism suspects before military courts amounted to “second- or third-class” justice.

Speaking ahead of Tuesday’s meeting in Bonn, Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said Afghan leaders whose forces commit atrocities should be kept out of any future Afghan government.

The Northern Alliance, dominated by ethnic minority Tajiks and Uzbeks, has been backed by Iran, Russia and India, Islamabad’s nuclear rival, fanning fears in Pakistan of a hostile government on its western border.

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