The battle for the Taliban's northern foothold in Kunduz intensified Friday with an attack on three fronts by US-backed opposition forces, as scores of Taliban fighters surrendered in the melee.
Besides Kunduz, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said fighting was also continuing around Kunduz at Khanabad, Pul-e-Bangi and Dasht-e-Arachi, after US warplanes bombed the area overnight.
Persistent US bombing raids on Taliban positions have helped the Northern Alliance and tribal warlords claim a quick series of victories, including last week's capture of Kabul.
Sadreddine, a Northern Alliance commander, told AFP on Friday the coalition's forces had "chased the Taliban from the hills" dominating Khanabad, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Kunduz, where thousands of pro-Taliban troops have been under siege for nearly two weeks.
The Northern Alliance claimed Thursday that most of the estimated 3,000 to 9,000 Taliban fighters trapped in Kunduz had offered to lay down their arms.
The main stumbling block to negotiations was the do-or-die resistance of some 2,000 fanatical Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens who were dug in alongside the Afghan Taliban, alliance commanders said.
"Most Afghan Taliban have agreed to surrender, but the foreign fighters will not lay down their arms, negotiations are continuing," Alliance General Mohammad Daoud told AFP.
The foreigners include members of Al Qaeda, a network of Islamic militants led by Osama bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the September 11 attacks on US cities that killed about 4,200 people.
The Taliban militia denied claims that its fighters in Kunduz had agreed to surrender.
However, alliance spokesmen said that around 100 Taliban soldiers had given up Thursday. By Friday morning, they added, the number surrendering had reached into the hundreds.
US forces have deployed the Global Hawk, a new high-flying unmanned reconnaissance spy plane, to join the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan, despite testing of the aircraft being incomplete.
Operating at heights above 60,000 feet (18,200 meters), the Global Hawk is intended as a fast reaction strike system designed to hit targets within five minutes of their detection, a suitable supplement, in winter, to the RQ-1A Predator unmanned aircraft.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday would not say whether Uzbekistan had given permission for US AC-130 special forces gunships to be stationed there.
"It would be helpful for us to have AC-130s up north," he said, "particularly when you have a situation like Kunduz because ... (it) can put out an enormous amount of ordnance and with a great deal of precision without a lot of collateral damage."
Despite impressive ousters of the Taliban, the upcoming fight to dislodge them from some of their most impenetrable strongholds is expected to be a tough one.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson warned Thursday that the Islamic army, which had controlled Kabul since 1996, was "not yet defeated," and British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned against letting the hardliners trapped in Kunduz escape through a negotiated deal.
British commandos are fighting alongside US special forces trying to hunt down bin Laden, who is thought to be hiding in southern Afghanistan.
The Taliban still control the southern city of Kandahar, their spiritual home, but they are negotiating with tribal leaders who have threatened to attack the city.
The fighting has hampered efforts to launch a massive international aid program to save millions of Afghans from starvation as winter falls on a country wracked by two decades of war and three years of drought.
The British government said on Thursday that it did not see any need for a large number of foreign troops to safeguard aid delivery. The statement seemed to indicate the British government may cancel the planned deployment of 6,000 soldiers to Afghanistan to protect humanitarian aid.
A number of countries have proposed sending troops to protect aid shipments, but their deployment has been hampered by arguments with the Northern Alliance over their numbers and role.
After a meeting in Tehran between alliance foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, alliance officials said that a "limited deployment" of 100 British troops was acceptable, but any additional forces would require "more dialogue."
The alliance is notably believed to feel uneasy over the possibility western forces could scrutinize its human rights record.
Red Cross workers found up to 600 bodies in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif after it was abandoned by the Taliban, but were unable to say how they died.
UN envoy Francesc Vendrell said Thursday there was a need for a "discreet" international security force in Afghanistan, describing the situation around Kabul as "a little bit worrying."
But Vendrell ruled out an immediate need for peacekeepers.
He was speaking to reporters after a meeting with Straw who flew in to Islamabad late Thursday.
Meanwhile, moves to replace the Taliban with a new broad-based government continued.
Pakistan cut off the militia's last diplomatic contact with the outside world by closing its embassy in Islamabad.
In Rome, aides to Afghanistan's exiled former king said they had chosen delegates for a conference on forming an interim government.
The team is to meet Northern Alliance representatives outside Bonn, Germany for a UN-brokered conference to set up a power-sharing assembly to bring together Pashtun leaders with the Alliance's Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek leaders.
The Pashtun ethnic group, Afghanistan's largest, has in the past largely supported the Taliban and provided the bulk of its manpower.
But as the regime's power has collapsed, local warlords and tribal chiefs have reasserted themselves.
Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun leader who returned to Afghanistan to foment a revolt against the Taliban and canvass support for the king, said Thursday that he was hopeful that the Taliban would negotiate the surrender of Kandahar -- KABUL (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)