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U.N. says it can't oversee Taliban surrender at Konduz

Pentagon: Konduz, Kandahar are in a 'standoff'

KONDUZ, Afghanistan (CNN) -- A top U.N. official said Tuesday that the United Nations cannot oversee the surrender of Taliban troops holed up in the northern Afghanistan city of Konduz, and the Pentagon described the situation there as a "standoff."

Despite an increase in small-arms fire on the front lines, discussions between Taliban and Northern Alliance officials have continued in the no-man's land between the opposing lines. The Northern Alliance said 1,000 local Taliban troops have surrendered and others are fleeing Konduz.

Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, said a religious leader in Islamabad, Pakistan, and a Taliban representative approached U.N. officials Monday night with an offer to surrender unconditionally through the United Nations. But Brahimi said the United Nations does not have the means to oversee a surrender.

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"It is evident that the United Nations cannot, has no means, is not present on the ground and simply cannot possibly accede to this request," he said.

The alliance said as many as 10,000 international troops -- Pakistanis, Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs -- are fighting with the Taliban. In Washington, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman, described the situation at Konduz as a "standoff."

"It continues as a standoff because it's not clear how it will be resolved," he said.

Non-Afghan troops likely to stay and fight

Stufflebeem said the U.S. was continuing to launch airstrikes at the request of U.S. forces or opposition forces on the ground. He also noted that about three-quarters of Afghanistan is no longer under Taliban control.

"We are responsive to the opposition groups whom we are supporting in that effort right now," he said. "I think it would be fair to say that if the opposition groups were to ask us not to bomb a specific facility or location so they can continue their discussions, we'll certainly honor that."

Stufflebeem said the situation around Kandahar, the Taliban's stronghold in southern Afghanistan, is not "dissimilar" from Konduz.

"They're working with their Afghan counterparts from within the Taliban ... in negotiations for surrender in both those areas," he said.

The Northern Alliance said these hard-core fighters have three options: They can surrender and be treated as war criminals; leave Konduz under U.N. protection, which now seems unlikely; or stay in Konduz and fight -- the most likely option.

The Northern Alliance said hard-core Taliban volunteers from other countries have killed 470 local Taliban fighters who wanted to deal with the Northern Alliance. The report could not be independently verified.

Stufflebeem said he did not know why or how such a large concentration of the Taliban's foreign troops were holed up in Konduz.

"We'll assume that they wish to continue to fight," he said.

Stufflebeem also said there are more teams of U.S. Special Operations troops on the ground in southern Afghanistan to perform strategic reconnaissance missions, including looking for the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Despite terrible weather, U.S. airstrikes resumed about noon local time Tuesday (10:30 p.m. EST Monday) in the Konduz province. The weather conditions in the region were poor Tuesday, with heavy cloud cover and fog, cold temperatures and a fierce easterly wind that stirred up a large volume of dust.

Hundreds of Northern Alliance troops hunkered in trenches, manholes and structures to keep warm. Meanwhile, families terrified by U.S. bombing attacks in hills surrounding Konduz streamed from the city Monday. There are unconfirmed reports from people fleeing the region of civilian casualties.

Although the United Nations said it cannot oversee a Taliban surrender, Brahimi urged the Northern Alliance to show restraint.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked the Northern Alliance "to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and treat these questions with as much humanity as possible," Brahimi said -- not only in Konduz, but "elsewhere, everywhere."

President Bush, speaking in Washington, continued to sound the theme that U.S. forces are likely to be in Afghanistan for some time.

"I want people in America to understand that first of all, the theater in Afghanistan is entering a difficult period," Bush said during a brief question-and-answer session with reporters at the White House. "We could be there for quite a while, which is fine because we've got an objective in mind."

Bush, appearing with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, also said the war on terrorism would involve "other fronts" in other countries and other targets, not just the al Qaeda network.

CNN Correspondent Satinder Bindra and Producer Ryan Chilcote contributed to this report.


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