Taliban to quit Kandahar, sources say
QUETTA, Pakistan (CNN) -- Under pressure from tribal leaders, Afghanistan's Taliban agreed to withdraw from their political and spiritual base in Kandahar late Friday, while CNN has learned that one of bin Laden's top lieutenants was believed killed in recent bombing.
Sources affiliated with a group of Pashtun tribal leaders told CNN that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, agreed Friday night to withdraw his forces from Kandahar and turn control of the city over to pro-Taliban warlord Haji Bashar.
The move follows more than a month of U.S. bombardment and a week of battlefield setbacks that have left the fundamentalist Muslim militia in control of only a third of the country, according to U.S. estimates.
However a spokesman for the Taliban Foreign Ministry told Reuters news service the Taliban were in full control of Kandahar and had no plans to withdraw.
"Kandahar is in complete control of the Taliban, and reports of the withdrawal of the Taliban are baseless," Maulvi Najibullah told Reuters.
Between 80 to 100 tribal leaders met in Quetta to give the Taliban an ultimatum -- surrender within a week or face an attack by well-armed Pashtun tribesmen from six southern Afghan provinces. Their point man, Abdul Khaliq, traveled to Kandahar on Friday evening to deliver that message in person, the sources said.
Bashar, who hails from the Norzai tribe, is believed to be sympathetic to the Pashtun tribal leaders despite his association with Omar. He will retain enough of a military force to maintain security in the city, the sources said.
No political agreement yet
The Pashtun tribal leaders have been coordinating their efforts with Afghanistan's exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah. They claimed Friday that they have also been receiving U.S. military support. But the tribal leaders have not reached a political agreement on who will fill the power vacuum in Kandahar once Omar and his troops depart.
Khalid Pashtoon, a local government spokesman in Kandahar, said earlier Friday that a Taliban withdrawal from Kandahar could take days. Hamid Karzai, a U.S.-backed opposition leader operating in southern Afghanistan, said he had reports of "serious turmoil" in the city Friday.
"We also know that there is some fighting going on. Some Taliban troops are leaving," Karzai said. He said elements opposed to the Taliban in southern Afghanistan have urged Taliban troops to surrender.
"If they lay down their arms, they will be safe," Karzai said.
Pashtoon also said that Omar and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were still in the Kandahar area, despite some reports that bin Laden had fled the country.
Rumsfeld: Taliban 'still there'
In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said reports of a Taliban withdrawl wouldn't necessarily change the U.S. military approach.
"I think that our forces who are there are still operating under an assumption that it's a hostile environment," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said. "And I think that the opposition groups are probably operating in the same way."
Stufflebeem said the Taliban certainly have been in withdrawal "and in some cases, they appear to be in active retreat."
"We know they are trying to collect themselves together in the southwest part of the country," he said.
Stufflebeem said that while anti-Taliban forces are approaching Jalalabad, it was not clear whether the eastern city has fallen. There have been reports that the Taliban have lost control of the city.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cautioned Friday that despite their recent losses, "the Taliban are still there."
"One can't say that the circumstance is necessarily permanent in that country," Rumsfeld told reporters. "On the other hand, what you have is clearly a group of people in that country who are delighted that the Taliban are on the way out ... have left a good portion of the country and are moving away from a number of cities.
"Their rule has been, even for Afghanistan, notably vicious," he said.
A "modest number" of U.S. special operations troops are operating in southern Afghanistan and engaging Taliban forces, the secretary of defense said.
"We've been using various intelligence assets trying to locate folks, looking for large movements of people as they're flushed out, going after caves and tunnels -- going after activities and businesses and movements where we know and can tell if they are military or al Qaeda or Taliban, and tracking to see what they do, and then going after them," he said.
Offers of safe passage
Stufflebeem said it was fair to say the Taliban have lost control of more than two-thirds of Afghanistan, and opposition forces continued to make gains Friday outside of Herat and south of Kabul.
In northern Afghanistan, anti-Taliban commanders were prepared to offer safe passage out of Afghanistan for Taliban international volunteers from their last stronghold at Konduz, CNN learned Friday.
A senior Northern Alliance military official said Friday the opposition would allow the Taliban's Pakistani, Chechen and Arab fighters at Konduz to leave as long as they surrender their weapons. Northern Alliance officials say they would be prepared to give them safe passage by air, possibly into Pakistan.
The Northern Alliance has made rapid gains over the past week, seizing the capital Kabul and the major cities of Mazar-e Sharif and Herat as Taliban forces have retreated. The offer to allow Taliban fighters to retreat from Konduz comes amid busy, informal diplomatic activity around the city, even as the Taliban and Northern Alliance fight for it.
The capture of Konduz would open up land routes for relief aid and other supplies from Tajikistan.
Top lieutenant believed killed
U.S. officials told CNN on Friday that one of bin Laden's top lieutenants, Mohammed Atef, was believed to have been killed in a recent U.S. airstrike. Atef is considered bin Laden's top military strategist, and his daughter is married to one of bin Laden's sons.
Stufflebeem said the reports of Atef's death first appeared in intelligence reports based on conversations picked up after the airstrikes, which he said occurred "a couple of days ago." He declined to give more specifics on the intelligence reports.
Rumsfeld said the report sounded "authoritative," but said he did not know for certain that Atef was dead.