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Celebrations, confusion as Kandahar falls

Fierce fighting near Jalalabad; Taliban surrender Spin Boldak

Karzai, left, and Omar, who is rarely photographed.
Karzai, left, and Omar, who is rarely photographed.  

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Afghans celebrated in Kandahar after the Taliban lost the last major city under their control Friday, while fighters looking for Osama bin Laden encountered stiff resistance near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

U.S. troops were firing upon Taliban forces fleeing Kandahar, U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks said at a new conference at U.S. Central Command headquarters.

"We have engaged forces who are leaving Kandahar with their weapons," Franks said during a new conference at Central Command headquarters in Florida.

Franks said the U.S. troops are blocking Taliban forces from fleeing the area. "We are blocking in some cases from the air, we are blocking in some cases with direct fire from the ground," he said.

Franks also said the option of sending Marines into Kandahar remains open. Franks did say that U.S. Marines had been involved in several ground and air attacks, using helicopter gunships, in the previous 24 hours. About 1,500 Marines are encamped at a base south of Kandahar.

Elsewhere, U.S. forces resumed punishing airstrikes in the rugged White Mountains near the Pakistani border, where Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers are believed to be hiding, possibly in a high-altitude fortress of caves and tunnels.

CNN's Brent Sadler reports U.S. and alliance forces are in hot pursuit of Osama bin Laden near Tora Bora, Afghanistan (December 6)

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Ground forces of the Eastern Alliance -- the anti-Taliban faction around Jalalabad -- moved their tanks closer to the mountains after engaging Taliban forces during the day. The anti-Taliban fighters claimed to have killed at least two dozen al Qaeda fighters and two commanders.

Taliban forces also surrendered the strategic town of Spin Boldak, near the Pakistan border, to tribal leaders. Anti-Taliban tribal fighters raised the green, red and black flag in both cities showing support for the country's former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

Three tribal groups are in control of Spin Boldak, which is strategically important because it lies along the highway that links Kandahar to Pakistan.

Franks said the military does not have a "sense of comfort" regarding the stability of both Kandahar or Spin Boldak.

"It's just going to take us two or three days to understand what's going in Kandahar as well as ... in Spin Boldak," he said.

In Kandahar, as in Spin Boldak, the Taliban left after a negotiated surrender, and tribal forces from other areas came into the city. A sense of calm had returned there after chaos and widespread looting earlier in the day. People were in the streets, firing guns to celebrate the tribal victory.

The political situation remained unclear. Tribal commander Gul Agha, former governor of Kandahar, reportedly had moved into the governor's mansion, and some other tribal fighters were trying to regain positions they lost when the Taliban came to power in 1996, according to reports from inside Kandahar.

In Spin Boldak, tribal leaders were backing the new interim government.

Whereabouts of Omar unclear

Interim Afghan government leader Hamid Karzai said supreme Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar missed a Thursday night deadline to renounce terrorism and was being sought.

"He did not do that," Karzai said. "Last night was his last chance before the transfer of power to do that. He remains to be committed to his association with terrorism."

Karzai said he did not know Omar's whereabouts Friday, but he said Omar should now face trial. The Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported Omar had fled Kandahar.

"Mullah Mohammed Omar is not in Kandahar. He has moved to some unknown place," said Haji Basheer Ahmed, a member of the tribal commission to which the Taliban surrendered power in Kandahar.

In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Omar remains in the "general vicinity" of Kandahar, citing what she described as "very recent" U.S. intelligence on Omar's whereabouts.

There is no indication that Omar was allowed to leave the city, during this unsettled time, she said, adding the United States still hopes to gain custody of the Taliban leader should he be caught.

"We're confident this will be handled in a way in which we'll be happy," she said during in a morning briefing with reporters.

But while Franks said he doesn't believe Omar has escaped, he also acknowledged that "we simply don't know where Omar is."

The Taliban's spiritual headquarters

The fall of Kandahar was significant not only because it was the last major city held by the Taliban but also because it was the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

Karzai said Taliban fighters had been scheduled to begin turning in their weapons Friday at two locations in Kandahar under an agreement struck Thursday, but instead they began fleeing the city.

"The Taliban authority is effectively finished," said Karzai. "There is no longer a situation where we will need to push the Taliban forces out of Kandahar."

By Friday afternoon, forces of long-time mujahedeen commander Mullah Naqibullah had taken control of the city's major military and administrative buildings.

Events in Kandahar were chaotic during the change-over. Looting began overnight as the Taliban forces left. Looters spread throughout the city, hitting relief agency warehouses as well as private businesses and households.

CNN sources said Taliban, Arabs, thieves and opposition forces were on the streets. The normally bustling city market was deserted, while gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire could be heard.

But Taliban members were hard to find by Friday afternoon as Naqibullah's forces began to exert power. While it was believed most of the Taliban had left for rural areas, others were suspected to have gone into hiding in the city, sources said.

In the Arabian Sea, U.S. Navy ships are "querying" vessels leaving Pakistani ports by radio, as part of a search for al Qaeda members trying to flee the area, Navy officials said.

In the ports, passenger and crew manifests are being checked by U.S. military and intelligence officials in cooperation with local Pakistani authorities, officials said. Cargo records are also being checked closely.

A senior official said to date he was not aware that any ships had been boarded by U.S. sailors, but "we remain ready to do so." The official added that any suspicious ship refusing Navy requests to stop "could be fired upon."

Amnesty offered to 'common Taliban'

Clarke described the situation around Kandahar as "fluid." "Commando Solo," an aircraft used for broadcasts, has been transmitting messages urging Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to surrender and has provided instructions as to how should give themselves up.

The end of Taliban control in Kandahar followed a deal reached Thursday for them to surrender, in a process that was supposed to begin Friday and last up to four days, said Karzai. It was uncertain how the process will proceed now that so many Taliban fighters have fled.

A day earlier, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said part of the negotiated settlement involved amnesty for Omar and suggested that under the surrender agreement Omar would be allowed to "live in dignity." But Karzai said there were no conditions.

On Thursday, Karzai said in return for the surrender he had offered "common Taliban" fighters amnesty, but said about 650 non-Afghan fighters in the Kandahar area are criminals who must be brought to justice.

"They have committed crimes against the Afghan people and against the international community," Karzai said Thursday. "They must leave my country, and they must face justice, international justice."

Fierce fighting near Jalalabad

Meanwhile, in eastern Afghanistan, anti-Taliban commanders said an al Qaeda commander had been killed in fierce fighting near Jalalabad.

It appeared that the al Qaeda fighters' first line of defense had crumbled by Friday night, a day marked by intense U.S. airstrikes in support of anti-Taliban ground forces of the Eastern Alliance, according to CNN reports.

U.S. airstrikes pounded the foothills of the White Mountains in the Tora Bora region, where bin Laden and his followers are believed to be hiding. U.S. Special Forces, accompanied by guides, were seen heading up the valley toward the mountains Friday.

Belongings apparently left behind by retreating al Qaeda forces were found in a large cave, as anti-Taliban fighters pushed toward al Qaeda positions, CNN was told.

Commander Hazrat Ali told CNN that al Qaeda commanders had turned down a request by anti-Taliban forces for a five-day lull in the fighting, so they could escape across the mountains into Pakistan.

One anti-Taliban fighter said there are reports of al Qaeda members having their families with them in battle and other reports of some family members, maybe even women, taking up arms against the opposition forces.

At the Pentagon, Clarke also said there is not enough information to accurately characterize the situation at Tora Bora.

"We can't say it's been taken or anything close to it," she said.

-- CNN Correspondents Jonathan Aiken, David Ensor, Kamal Hyder, Nic Robertson, Harris Whitbeck and Brent Sadler contributed to this report.


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