Taliban say Bin Laden no longer in their territory

 

The Taliban clung onto their last two main strongholds today in the face of sustained US bombing as their only diplomatic envoy said for the first time Osama bin Laden was no longer in territory under their control.

"I don't know whether he is in Afghanistan or not, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef told reporters in Islamabad after returning from a visit to the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual home and still firmly in their hands.

US Secretary of State Mr Colin Powell said he believed bin Laden was still in Afghanistan but with less and less room to move. "A lot of reports suggest that his freedom to manoeuvre has become quite limited", Mr Powell said on U.S. television.

In Kunduz, the last enclave held by the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, the opposition said Pakistani, Arab and Chechen guerrillas supporting the Taliban were fighting to the death, executing Afghan comrades who wanted to give themselves up.

We have heard that a group of local Taliban tried to surrender in Kunduz but they were killed by the foreign soldiers, a Northern Alliance Foreign Ministry spokesman told Reuters by telephone from the neighbouring city of Taloqan.

The opposition said the United States sent wave after wave of warplanes, including B-52 bombers, to batter Taliban positions at Kunduz, backed up by artillery fire from Alliance forces. The reports could not be independently verified.

U.S. bombers also pounded targets around Kandahar, home of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) said.

The news agency described the raids on Saturday night and Sunday morning as some of the heaviest in 43 days of air strikes and said they killed 46 people.

There was no sign that the Taliban were ready to abandon the powerbase they captured seven years ago despite reports on Friday of a deal to withdraw that would leave the city in the hands of fellow members of the ethnic Pashtun majority.

The military advance of the Northern Alliance, which swept into Kabul on Tuesday just days after starting a major land offensive, has far outstripped political progress on agreeing a future broad-based post-Taliban government for Afghanistan.

But the pace of diplomacy quickened today, with UN envoy Mr Francesc Vendrell holding talks in Kabul and Mr James Dobbins, the US representative to the opposition, doing the same in Tashkent.

The result was an apparent climbdown by the Alliance from its demand that talks on the future of Afghanistan be held in Kabul despite objections by its political rivals and the United Nations.

It will be outside Afghanistan, Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told a news conference in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, after talks with Mr Dobbins, mentioning Germany, Switzerland and Austria as possible venues.

Meanwhile a 12-member team of Russian officials today became the first foreign delegation to arrive in Kabul to discuss the shape of a future government since the capital fell to the forces of the Northern Alliance last Tuesday.

Many anti-Taliban groups want exiled former King Zahir Shah to head a new regime rather than ousted former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who returned to Kabul yesterday five years after the Taliban drove him out.