Northern Alliance forces advanced Thursday on the besieged city of Kunduz, warning of a bloody showdown with Taliban troops who ignored a surrender ultimatum as fighting erupted close to the Afghan capital, reported AFP.
Meanwhile, Pakistan expressed deep concern Thursday for Taliban forces besieged in Kunduz and appealed to the international community to avert a potential massacre, said the agency in a separate report.
A large number of Pakistani volunteers are believed to be among the thousands of Taliban fighters under siege in Kunduz, where Northern Alliance forces were threatening to attack after expiry of a surrender-or-die ultimatum.
A foreign ministry spokesman said Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf voiced his concern in a meeting with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger.
The Northern Alliance claimed most of the Taliban fighters trapped in Kunduz had agreed to surrender during overnight negotiations, but this was denied by the hardline militia.
"About 97 percent of the Taliban are to surrender. And we are going to fight those who refuse to lay down their arms," said Northern Alliance commander Mahmoud Safdar.
"One way or another, we are entering the city of Kunduz today," added Safdar, deputy to General Nazir Mahmad who is directing the Northern Alliance's operations on that front.
But the Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera, known for its exclusive reporting on the Taliban, conveyed a denial from militia chief Mullah Mohammad Omar that his fighters were ready to give themselves up, said AFP.
"The office of Mullah Omar strongly denied that, and the Taliban army chief Akhdar Othmani said the information was totally false," correspondent Yousef Al Shuli reported from the southeastern city of Spin Boldak.
The alliance delivered an ultimatum Wednesday for the thousands of Taliban fighters besieged in Kunduz, giving them until Thursday morning to surrender.
It reiterated the ultimatum Thursday and said surrender negotiations were continuing.
"We are ready to enter the city, and those who resist will be killed," Northern Alliance General Mohammad Daoud said.
"Most Afghan Taliban have agreed to surrender, but the foreign fighters will not lay down their arms. Negotiations are continuing."
While UN, US and British officials said they could play no role in Kunduz, the international community urged the Northern Alliance to avoid using the capture of the city for a bloody settling of scores.
Up to 9,000 fighters, including foreign nationals from terror suspect Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, have been trapped in Kunduz, surrounded by Northern Alliance troops and bombed by US warplanes.
Thousands of civilians are also said to be trapped in the bomb-ravaged city.
The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said US bombers pounded Kunduz throughout Wednesday night, and also bombed mountains around the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar.
The fate of the some 2,000 Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens dug in alongside the Taliban was the main stumbling block in the surrender negotiations, the Northern Alliance said.
The fundamentalist fighters had refused to give up to the alliance forces for fear of being executed. They wanted to leave the city under UN auspices but the world body said it was in no position to get involved.
The alliance said General Abdul Rashid Dostam, whose forces are lined up northwest of Kunduz, had been negotiating in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif with Mullah Fazil Mazloom, the leader of the besieged forces.
Other alliance representatives were meeting with local Taliban chiefs at Emam Saheb, on the northern Kunduz front near the Tajikistan border.
While the standoff in Kunduz seemed to be reaching a climax, fighting broke out between Taliban and Northern Alliance forces near the capital Kabul, an AFP correspondent at the scene reported.
Eleven Northern Alliance tanks, backed by artillery and rocket fire, spearheaded an assault on Taliban hill positions about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southwest of Kabul.
Commanders with the alliance, which now controls Kabul, said the attack against an estimated 600 Taliban troops began at around 7:00am (0230 GMT) and lasted some five hours before the alliance forces retreated in the face of a flanking counter attack.
The Taliban remained defiant even though their territory had been reduced to a chunk of Afghanistan's southern dustbowl over the past two weeks.
TALIBAN: NO COMMUNICATION WITH BIN LADEN
The Taliban have announced that they have no communication with suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden or his Al Qaeda network.
Meanwhile, CNN quoted Pentagon sources as saying that as many as 1,600 US Marines were on standby off the Pakistani coast and could be called in, probably for reconnaissance missions, while more than 4,000 Marines were waiting offshore, 2,000 of them combat-ready.
The Bush administration on Wednesday repeated its determination to locate bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on the US in which thousands of civilians were killed.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told CBS News he would prefer bin Laden was killed rather than taken alive.
Legal experts have said that putting the Saudi-born dissident on trial would be a nightmare for the Bush administration, given the intricacies of international law and the terrorist leader's long-running ties to the CIA.
The net also appears to be tightening around bin Laden's followers.
US forces are on alert for Al Qaeda members who might try to escape from Afghanistan to neighboring countries and then board a ship in the northern Arabian Sea, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. Peter Pace said Wednesday, according to CNN.
DIPLOMATS HEAD FOR BERLIN
Amid the continued breakdown of the Taliban regime, diplomats from around the world prepared for a meeting in Berlin to determine the type of government that will replace the militia, said reports.
Delegations from four anti-Taliban groupings - including the Northern Alliance, Pashtun tribes from southern Afghanistan and supporters of exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah - will meet in or near Berlin on Monday for UN -organized talks to map out a plan for an interim government in Afghanistan, said CNN.
Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani has grudgingly backed off his demand that the conference be held in Kabul, which he controls, according to AP.
Afghanistan has lacked a central government since the Taliban pulled out of Kabul on Nov. 13, and Rabbani's faction - the alliance's largest - moved in, said the agency, noting that Rabbani was Afghanistan's president until the Taliban ousted him in 1996.
The US and other countries have promised a quick start to the process of reconstructing Afghanistan, according to the BBC, and aid agencies have called for the UN to organize a multinational force to restore stability there - Albawaba.com
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