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Go now, Afghans tell Taliban

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Political control of Kandahar remained unclear Saturday as Afghan tribal leaders held meetings with Taliban commanders, trying to persuade them to lay down their weapons or face an attack by opposition forces.

The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was still in control of Kandahar Saturday but had shuffled the top administrative posts, according to a senior member of a group of Pashtun tribal chiefs meeting across the border in Quetta, Pakistan.

Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, is holding talks with the Norzai tribe in Kandahar to divide rule between the tribal leaders.

The Norzai tribe -- the largest Pashtun tribe in southern Afghanistan -- recently held a shura, or tribal council, which appointed Omar's deputy, Haji Bashar, as Kandahar's administrator. Omar agreed to the power shift in a move one former Pashtun commander said is meant to show Pashtun tribal leaders that the Taliban is moving in a more moderate direction.

CNN's Carol Lin reports on the political situation in Kandahar (November 17)

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Bashar told CNN Saturday that local tribal law is beginning to take effect over Taliban authority in Kandahar.

But Mullah Malang, a former Pashtun commander based in Quetta, said he believes the move was simply a smokescreen, and that the Bashar -- a Taliban member and a respected Norzai tribesman -- is not moderate at all.

The Taliban also are disputing any shift in power as a spokesman for Omar told the Arabic-language TV network Al-Jazeera Saturday that the Taliban were still in control of Kandahar.

Mohammad Taiab Agha told Al-Jazeera that reports of Pashtun tribal leaders in control of Kandahar are "lies" told by "the Western media."

"Kandahar is the center, which is still in our hand, the hand of the Taliban," he said, adding "thousands" of Taliban forces are in and around Kandahar.

"They have made a decision to defend the city of Kandahar and the surrounding provinces, and to defend the religion and the Islamic law," Agha said. "We stand firm. We stick to our positions to the death."

Surrender ultimatum

It was not clear if the apparent shift in Kandahar's power structure was a move to appease the Pashtun tribesman and avoid war, or if was a political ploy by Omar to stay in power.

The apparent administration shuffle came as a group of 80 to 100 tribal leaders met in Quetta to give the Taliban an ultimatum on Kandahar: surrender within a week or face an attack by well armed Pashtun tribesmen from six southern Afghan provinces.

"Fighting is the very last resort," Malang told CNN. "They don't have any other way. The Taliban have to surrender."

The tribal leaders in Quetta have sent a second delegation to Kandahar to continue negotiations there. The tribal leaders also said that should Kandahar fall, they have a plan ready in which the tribal elders would move in to replace the Taliban commanders as the city's government.

The tribal leaders have been coordinating their efforts with Afghanistan's exiled king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, and claim they have been receiving U.S. military support.

The Taliban draw most of their support from Pashtuns, which are the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, although not a majority. Shah was the last Pashtun king of Afghanistan but the Taliban are opposed to the king.

U.S. officials have described the situation in Kandahar -- the Taliban's southern stronghold -- as "very fluid."

On Friday, it appeared the Taliban might have been ready to give up their base of Kandahar. Sources affiliated with the tribal leaders told CNN Omar had agreed to withdraw his forces from the city and had turned control over to Bashar.

Unclear if tribal chiefs can fill vacuum

Malang said Saturday that was not the case, saying the Taliban were still in control.

"They didn't leave," he said. "The opposition has captured some places outside the city, but they have not taken Kandahar."

Mansoor Akbar Kundi, a political science professor at the University of Baluchistan, said the tribal elders must have a role in shaping a future Afghan government.

"When Taliban stepped into power, these tribal leaders paid allegiance to them, they supported them on the ground, that [they] would bring peace and law and order," Kundi told CNN.

But he said it is unclear whether the chiefs are capable of filling a political vacuum.

"It will depend, because these tribal leaders are out of Afghanistan for very long, and the role they used to play 23 years ago may not be the same," he said.

In Kabul, former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani returned to the Afghan capital Saturday for the first time since he was deposed by the Taliban in 1996, said the Northern Alliance's foreign ministry. He was scheduled to brief reporters later in the day.

Last week, Rabbani and other leaders of the Northern Alliance called for a meeting in Kabul, which they captured from the Taliban on Tuesday, to discuss formulating a post-Taliban government. It was not clear if this was the purpose for his visit.

Rabbani, the political leader of the Northern Alliance, is still recognized as Afghanistan's president by the United Nations and most countries. He held power before the Taliban took control of the country.

However, the United Nations and the international community do not want the Northern Alliance to lead a post-Taliban government. Instead, they support a broad-based government.

CNN Correspondent Carol Lin contributed to this report.


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