Forces closing in on Kandahar

U.S. military says anti-Taliban troops prepare to lay siege

War On Terrorism


WASHINGTON - Aided by American air power and ground troops, opposition forces in southern Afghanistan have encircled and are on the verge of laying siege to the city of Kandahar, the last major bastion of Taliban military power, senior U.S. military officials said yesterday.

As American warplanes continued to bomb Taliban positions in and around Kandahar, opposition militias cut off the main roads leading into the city from the north, west and east. Eighty miles to the southwest, 1,000 U.S. Marines have established a base that is within quick striking distance by helicopter.

Pakistani officials said yesterday that anti-Taliban fighters from tribes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border also are moving toward Kandahar. The fighters were expected to take a few days to travel the 70 miles from the border to the outskirts of the city, planning to pick up allies along the way, the Pakistani officials said.

The officials have been negotiating with the anti-Taliban leaders in a halting effort to draw them into a makeshift "Southern Alliance" that would duplicate the coordination among anti-Taliban forces in the north.

The southern militias have not established a chokehold around Kandahar yet, senior U.S. military officials said, although they said the tribes, with the help of American commandos, were closely monitoring and often attacking Taliban troops trying to enter or leave the city.

"The city of Kandahar is, in a large way, relatively surrounded by opposition groups," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said at a Pentagon news briefing.

As was the case in northern Afghanistan, rebel commanders in the south are aggressively negotiating with Taliban factions inside Kandahar, through intermediaries and over satellite phones, urging them to lay down their arms, officials said.

Although some of the Taliban troops in Kandahar have defected or simply blended back into the countryside, many others, including some non-Afghan fighters, are vowing to make a last stand, Stufflebeem said.

A Northern Alliance field commander, Hajji Sher Alam, has also said that alliance forces might try to move south toward Kandahar. But Pentagon officials said they have seen no evidence of large troop movements.

The Pashtun tribes that dominate southern Afghanistan deeply mistrust the Northern Alliance forces, which consist mainly of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, so any attempts by the alliance to enter Kandahar could generate conflict among the opposition groups.

According to the Pakistanis who are working with them, most of the tribal forces assembled are loyal to Gul Agha, the former governor of Kandahar, the officials said. Rival fighters aligned with other tribal leaders were described by the officials as reluctant to join Agha's forces.

Definitive information about the movements and strategies of the rival tribal leaders in the border area is difficult to come by either in Pakistan or in Washington. As various tribal leaders jockey for control over the countryside, they are also trying to get Taliban fighters to switch sides, which has proven tougher than some expected.

"The reports of what is happening are so early and so sketchy, I think it's too soon to start making assessments or putting characterizations on it," said Victoria Clarke, the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

The Pentagon denied a recent news report that had quoted an unidentified commander of anti-Taliban forces as saying that fighters from Agha's forces had executed a large number of Taliban fighters, perhaps 160, who were refusing to surrender.

The report had said the men were lined up and gunned down several days ago as U.S. military personnel looked on and objected.

"We have worked really hard to run this one to ground, and the reports are just not believable," Clarke said.

"A U.S. liaison team is on the ground with opposition forces in the area," she said. "The team has not reported the capture of more than a handful of prisoners. Additionally, the team has not reported any information about improper treatment of prisoners, and would certainly do so if they had witnessed that or learned of these sorts of deaths."

Khalid Pashtun, another of Agha's commanders, also denied the report, saying 60 captured Taliban had been sent home.

British troops have joined the search for suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network in southern Afghanistan and they might have strayed over the border into Pakistan as they searched the village of Killi Siddiq, Pakistani officials said.

A Western diplomat said the troops had entered the village, but he said it straddles the border and the troops were careful to remain on the Afghan side, a difficult proposition in a place where dividing lines often are not marked clearly.

At the Pentagon, officials said a small number of American commandos, possibly fewer than 20, are at work in the area southwest of Jalalabad, looking for bin Laden's trail and pinpointing caves for bombing attacks by U.S. warplanes.

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