Fight rages for control of Kandahar
Taliban leader speaks of plan to destroy U.S.
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Anti-Taliban forces continued to make swift and significant gains in Afghanistan, with heavy fighting reported here, but there were reports Thursday that the Taliban still control this key city.
In northern Afghanistan, thousands of Taliban troops are defending positions in and around the city of Konduz -- their last stronghold in the north from the opposition Northern Alliance. The alliance also says it is moving into Jalalabad, an important city near Pakistan and east of Afghanistan's capital, Kabul.
Northern Alliance sources in Herat also said their forces have captured the military airbase of Shindand, about 100 kilometers south of the western Afghan city. One source described "scores of casualties" among the Taliban, saying many of them had been killed or taken prisoner.
And the BBC is reporting that Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, in an interview with the network's Pashtu language service, spoke of a plan in the works to destroy the United States. He also said in the interview that "four or five provinces are still in our control."
Sources in Washington told CNN that opposition forces had seized the airport in Kandahar and that there was fighting in the streets in the city, the Taliban's spiritual headquarters.
The sources said the Taliban still controlled some neighborhoods but that Pashtun fighters -- of the same ethnic group as the Taliban -- were moving into the city. The sources said Taliban fighters were fleeing in droves.
Pentagon spokesman John Stufflebeem, however, said it was unclear if the anti-Taliban forces seized the airport near Kandahar, but he did say there was a gunbattle at the airfield.
Stufflebeem also confirmed that several Pashtun tribes have been engaged in battles in and around the city, but he added the Pentagon does not know what, if anything, has been accomplished.
Meanwhile, Mullah Omar said Kandahar is under Taliban control. A story on the BBC's web site that detailed the interview said he rejected any cooperation with a post-Taliban broad-based government.
Also, the story reported that Mullah Omar said in the interview that a plan "for the destruction of America" is proceeding.
"The current situation in Afghanistan is related to a bigger cause -- that is the destruction of America.
"The plan is going ahead and God willing it is being implemented, but it is a huge task beyond the will and comprehension of human beings.
"If God's help is with us this will happen within a short period of time.
"Keep in mind this prediction."
Bakhit al-Rahman Zakri, director of Kandahar Central Hospital, said the city and environs are "under the control" of the Taliban. Zakri said raids in the city killed some people and injured others; among the casualties were women and children. Houses and buildings were destroyed, he said.
The opposition Northern Alliance claimed to be in control of 80 percent of the country.
The Taliban, meanwhile, are setting up pockets of resistance in the city of Konduz in northern Afghanistan.
CNN's Ben Wedeman, who is outside the town Khanabad on the road to Konduz, said Thursday that Northern Alliance troops have been seen heading west in the direction of Konduz. He said there has been carpet bombing by B-52s and bombing by other aircraft, including F-14s.
CNN's Satinder Bindra, reporting from Taloqan in the north, said Thursday that U.S. planes bombed Taliban frontline positions in Konduz on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. He said the Northern Alliance -- which plans to beef up its presence in the region -- says the Taliban have 60 tanks and 100 pieces of artillery.
Anti-Taliban commanders in the north say the fight in Konduz will be tough, and the Taliban forces there have shown no inclination to defect.
If Konduz is captured by the Northern Alliance, it will open up land routes for relief aid and other supplies from Tajikistan.
CNN's Bill Delaney, reporting in Peshawar, Pakistan, said Thursday that Taliban fighters headed out of Jalalabad before local militia gained control of the city, and Bindra reported the Northern Alliance says its soldiers are landing in Jalalabad by helicopters.
The Taliban fighters fleeing Jalalabad are in and around provinces where the local administrations are no longer friendly to the Taliban.
About 1,800 heavily armed pro-Taliban Arab fighters are on the route between Jalalabad and the Khyber Pass. Taliban troops in at least 200 vehicles are headed south from Jalalabad.
The governments of five northeastern Afghan provinces -- Nangarhar, Paktia, Lowgar, Laghman and Konarha -- on Wednesday declared their independence from the Taliban.
In another development, U.S. officials told CNN that U.S. aircraft carried out an attack Tuesday on a building believed to contain senior al Qaeda personnel. The building was destroyed and it is believed all inside were killed.
Asked if Osama bin Laden was among them, one official told CNN: "We don't know."
The officials could not say where the attack took place, except that it was in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
And on another front, eight Western aid workers were flown from Afghanistan in the early hours Thursday to Pakistan by U.S. Special Operations helicopters, more than three months after being detained by the Taliban.
The aid workers -- four Germans, two Americans and two Australians -- had been detained by the Taliban on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
One U.S. official said the Taliban handed the aid workers over to a non-governmental organization, the International Red Cross, which then contacted the U.S. military. The Special Forces troops did not encounter gunfire or hostile Taliban, the official said.
"I am glad to report to the American people that this chapter of the Afghan theater has ended in a very positive and constructive way," President Bush said from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
While Bush heralded the news and other developments in Afghanistan, he cautioned that the U.S.-led war on terrorism "could take a while."
"We still want al Qaeda, and we want to make sure that Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorist activity. That has yet to be accomplished. In the meantime, we're making substantial gains on the ground," he said. "Our military and our troops on the ground are on a hunt to accomplish the objective."
In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair -- referring to Taliban losses over the past several days -- told the House of Commons: "It is clear that support for the Taliban is evaporating."
"Though there may be pockets of resistance, the idea that this is some kind of tactical retreat is just the latest Taliban lie. They are in total collapse," Blair said a day after the Northern Alliance captured the capital, Kabul.
Blair said there were reports Wednesday that two senior Taliban figures, including a border minister and intelligence chief, had surrendered.
Exiled king urges respect for individual rights
Deposed Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was expected to return to Kabul soon. Rabbani, the political leader of the Northern Alliance, is still recognized as Afghanistan's president by the United Nations and most countries. He was deposed by the Taliban in 1996.
Mohammad Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's exiled king, issued a statement from Rome on Wednesday urging Afghans to respect one another's individual rights.
"I urge you to safeguard life, property and also to be vigilant in preventing foreign designs from inflicting more harm on our people," he said.
Leaders of the international coalition against the Taliban renewed their call for a broad-based, multi-ethnic government for post-Taliban Afghanistan.
The United Nations on Wednesday passed a resolution warning anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan against revenge killings and spelling out the "central role" for the U.N. in helping the Afghan people set up a transitional government. The world body is also attempting to set up a meeting of Afghan factions and ethnic groups to discuss a post-Taliban government.
U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said no meeting had been set but work is continuing.
Javier Solana, international policy chief for the European Union, said the goal of the meeting would be to put together a temporary government representing various ethnic groups until a constitutional government could be formed.
"We have to avoid a political vacuum," Solana said. He said he is not concerned that the Northern Alliance might refuse to share power. "I think we are working in the right direction."
Rebels want war-crimes trials
Thousands of British troops are on 48-hour stand-by for possible duty in Kabul and other newly captured cities in Afghanistan, the British Ministry of Defense said Wednesday. The troops would act as a stabilizing force as the United Nations helps create a temporary government and agencies launch their humanitarian operations, the ministry said.
The troops, who will monitor the Afghan capital and Mazar-e Sharif, will work separately from 4,200 British personnel -- mostly naval and support units -- already involved in the war in Afghanistan.
Northern Alliance officials are saying that when they get the chance, they will try Taliban leader Omar and accused terrorist Islamic militant bin Laden for war crimes.
Since last Friday, the Northern Alliance has made advances across northern, western and central Afghanistan, taking another major city, Herat, on Monday and then the capital.
U.S. warplanes target caves, tunnels
In Washington, the Pentagon said U.S. warplanes are continuing to bomb caves and tunnels where Taliban and al Qaeda members might be seeking refuge as they retreat from Afghanistan's major northern cities.
Stufflebeem said roughly 80 U.S. planes flew airstrikes on Tuesday, targeting cave and tunnel complexes used by al Qaeda or Taliban forces.
Earlier on Wednesday, Richard McGraw, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, said it was unclear exactly where the caves are located, but U.S. forces are trying to find the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban through intelligence networks on the ground.
That al Qaeda leaders are on the run "might make finding them a little easier," he said.
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