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Konduz fight rages despite reports of coming surrender

By CNN Correspondent
Satinder Bindra

KONDUZ, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Despite Northern Alliance claims Thursday that the Taliban have agreed to soon surrender this northern Afghanistan city, intense fighting raged between the two sides along the front lines.

After a meeting with a Taliban leader in Mazar-e Sharif, a top Northern Alliance commander said that Taliban fighters -- surrounded in this city by Northern Alliance troops -- agreed to lay down their arms Sunday. The surrender would give the Northern Alliance control of northern Afghanistan.

But in Konduz, where fierce battles raged, Northern Alliance fighters expressed doubt the surrender would happen, particularly since thousands of non-Afghan Taliban fighters face trial as war criminals.

And at the same time Northern Alliance commander Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gen. Mullah Faizal, the Taliban assistant defense minister in Konduz, met in Mazar-e Sharif, chaotic fighting broke out on the eastern side of Konduz province when Northern Alliance forces began a push west.

Tanks, small arms, rockets and grenade rocket launchers were fired in and around villages in the Konduz area. Hundreds of Northern Alliances troops, along with tanks, raced to the front amid an intensive artillery attack on Taliban positions.

In Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, coalition military jets were heard and four loud explosions were seen in a village to the southeast, an indication of bombing in the area.

Dostum said both the Afghan fighters and the so-called "foreign" fighters in the Konduz -- mostly Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks -- will surrender.

The Taliban troops will put down their weapons and give themselves up to Northern Alliance forces, said Dostum, who also said he planned to go to Konduz Saturday with 5,000 troops to oversee the surrender. Fighters who surrender will be taken to Mazar-e Sharif, Dostum said, where the Afghan fighters will be allowed to return home and the foreign fighters will be arrested and tried according the laws of the Islamic state of Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance will fight any Taliban fighters who do not surrender, Dostum said.

The United States has said it does not want any of the Taliban's international volunteers or suspected terrorists to be allowed to return to their home countries.

In talks Wednesday, Faizel said all the Taliban fighters in Konduz -- including the hard-line "foreign fighters" -- would no longer fight for Konduz, the last city still under Taliban control in northern Afghanistan.

For more than a week, the Northern Alliance has alleged that al Qaeda fighters and the non-Afghan troops fighting with the Taliban in Konduz have been killing local Taliban fighters who want to defect or surrender to the Northern Alliance.

The city has been the scene of heavy fighting in recent days, and many pro-Taliban fighters have pledged to fight until death there. The United States intensified its air campaign in the region in recent weeks.

Dostum also said he is negotiating with other officials about other Taliban-controlled areas in Afghanistan, including the southern stronghold of Kandahar, the Taliban's religious headquarters. He did not specify what officials he is in contact with.

With Taliban forces pushed into southern Afghanistan under relentless attacks from Britain and the United States in support of the Northern Alliance, Pakistan moved to sever its ties with the embattled rulers. Pakistan, until Thursday the only country that still maintained diplomatic relations with the Taliban, ordered the Afghans to close their embassy in Islamabad and vacate the country. Diplomats began leaving Thursday afternoon, telling reporters they were going home to Kandahar.

Taliban leaders there declared it their religious duty Wednesday to fight for the southern city, where the fundamentalist movement began its systematic takeover of Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet-backed communist regime in 1989.

Syed Tayyad Agha, the personal secretary to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, said the Taliban had sufficient forces to defend the area around Kandahar.

A source close to the Taliban administrator in Kandahar said there is pressure from al Qaeda on local Afghan Taliban fighters to stay loyal and not surrender.

The same source also said there is a flow of Taliban fighters heading south, starting to mass in and around Kandahar, a move that could embolden the hard-line, non-Afghan Taliban fighters in the city.

Leaders of Pashtun tribes, however, told CNN Taliban fighters around Kandahar were talking with tribal leaders about defecting.

Meanwhile, in Maidanshar, a town west of Kabul, the Northern Alliance is reporting fighting between troops under the command of a former Taliban commander and local residents. Previously, there had been talks between the commander and the Northern Alliance with the assistance of elders in the town.

CNN Correspondent Alessio Vinci in Mazar-e Sharif and Producer Ryan Chilcote contributed to this report.


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