Friday, November 30, 2001

Opposition forces are closing in on the last Taliban stronghold of Kandahar amid reports of growing defections of Taliban fighters, including the Islamist militia’s intelligence chief.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, said southern opposition tribes and a small number of Northern Alliance forces are deployed around Kandahar.
He described the Taliban militia as “fractured” by nearly two months of U.S. and opposition attacks.
The admiral spoke as hundreds of U.S. air raids struck targets inside Afghanistan yesterday, including caves and tunnels suspected of housing Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists, according to news reports from Afghanistan.
U.S. officials said intelligence reports from Afghanistan indicate the leader of the Taliban’s intelligence organization has defected to the opposition forces.
“There are credible reports suggesting that [the Taliban intelligence chief] has defected,” a U.S. official said.
Negotiations for the surrender of about 4,000 Taliban soldiers are under way. But the Pentagon believes many of the fighters, especially those from outside Afghanistan, may choose to fight to the death rather than give up.
Behind the scenes, leaders from five Pashtun tribes in the area sent a delegation to Kandahar to seek a deal for a peaceful exit by the Taliban.
The offer is similar to an arrangement reached two weeks ago in Afghanistan’s northeast provinces.
Some tribal leaders are willing to grant Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban members safe passage.
Adm. Stufflebeem told reporters at the Pentagon that opposition forces are closing in on Kandahar, the last bastion of Taliban control in Afghanistan.
“There have in fact been opposition groups, some of which are from the north, that have been around the Kandahar province, to the north of the Kandahar province,” Adm. Stufflebeem said. “The major road that goes to the south towards Quetta is controlled by opposition groups.”
In neighboring Uzbekistan, where about 1,000 members of the 10th Mountain Division have been stationed for weeks, U.S. officials announced that a soldier from that unit died yesterday of a gunshot wound.
They said his death was not the result of enemy action and was being investigated. No other details, including the soldier’s name, were released.
In other developments, U.S. officials said a key al Qaeda leader, Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman, was reported captured by Northern Alliance troops.
The terrorist is a senior official in the al Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. officials have said masterminded the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“He’s not at the very top echelon [of al Qaeda leaders],” a U.S. official said. “Still, he is a very significant player in the bin Laden organization.”
Abdel Rahman is the son of the blind Islamic radical Omar Abdel Rahman, who was imprisoned in 1995 for his role in a plot to blow up landmarks, bridges and tunnels in the New York City area.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said defections among Taliban officials is “another sign that the Taliban continues to be degraded.”
“There have been defections of some of the more senior people,” she said, declining to elaborate.
Northern Alliance Deputy Defense Minister Bismillah Khan, said in Kabul that fighting near Kandahar’s eastern border has been continuous. “There is heavy fighting going on,” said Mr. Khan.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the opposition forces are located throughout Kandahar province, which extends from the Pakistani border to the mountains of central Afghanistan. The forces are within 50 miles of the city of Kandahar.
Adm. Stufflebeem said some Taliban forces are “digging in” and preparing to fight, and that opposition fighters also have said they are ready to “fight to the death.”
Other Taliban forces have fled the area and are headed to neighboring Pakistan, he said, including some Taliban members who have turned in their arms and are “blending back into the city as citizens.”
Taliban military forces have varying degrees of leadership control, and there are some commanders who are negotiating for the surrender of their forces, Adm. Stufflebeem said.
Some Taliban forces have been “severed” from leaders and are dropping their arms and heading for the countryside, he said.
“There are others who might take Mullah Omar’s orders literally and intend to dig in defensively and fight to the death,” he said. “That’s a possibility.”
The number of U.S. Marines based in southern Afghanistan increased to about 1,000 soldiers, defense officials said.
A small group of U.S. Army troops about two dozen also have been deployed in northern Afghanistan near Mazar-e-Sharif and Bagram.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the Russian troops that have moved into Kabul over the past several days are security forces. He said the Russian government did not coordinate the troop movement with the U.S. military “at an operational level.”
Some officials viewed the Russian deployment as a power play designed to influence the composition of a future post-Taliban government in Afghanistan. Russia has backed the Northern Alliance with arms and armored vehicles.
Tribal leaders near Kandahar tend to distrust the Northern Alliance as much, if not more, than they do the Taliban. Amid efforts to get rid of the Taliban, participants in U.N.-sponsored political talks in Bonn reported progress yesterday toward forming a transitional post-Taliban government.
Afghan civilians crossing into Pakistan reported that tensions were rising in the border town of Spinboldak, where negotiations for a Taliban surrender appeared to be stalled.
cWillis Witter contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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