WASHINGTON -- Their forces all but defeated, Taliban leaders negotiated to surrender their last stronghold in Afghanistan to opposition groups yesterday, signaling an end to five years of harsh Islamic rule that turned the impoverished nation into a haven for terrorists.
The Taliban's offer to surrender the city of Kandahar was coupled with an effort to guarantee the safety of their top leadership, including Mullah Mohammed Omar, and freedom for their warriors. The United States demanded, however, that Omar, who once vowed to fight to the death, be brought to justice.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned Afghan opposition groups that are about to assume power that if they free Omar -- or let him live out his years quietly in Afghanistan -- U.S. aid to the war-ravaged country would be jeopardized.
The negotiations were being conducted by Hamed Karzai, a Pashtun leader who has been selected by opposition figures to head an interim government to replace the Taliban.
Karzai said early today that Omar and his aides must face trial.
"For the higher-ranking Taliban, if there is a case against them, they must face trial," he told Reuters News Service by satellite telephone.
Karzai said he had given an amnesty to rank-and-file Taliban, but there would be no escape for the militia's top leaders and foreign fighters loyal to the Taliban or fugitive militant Osama bin Laden's shadowy al Qaeda network.
"We have the strictest measures against them and we will hand them to international justice," he said.
Referring to a Pakistani news report that it could not verify, the Associated Press reported today that Taliban forces began handing in their weapons in Kandahar as part of a surrender deal.
"It seems that the final collapse of the Taliban is now upon us," British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America's closest ally in the war on terrorism, said in London. "That is a total vindication of the strategy that we have worked out from the beginning."
Karzai, who will formally assume his post Dec. 22, had sought to win the surrender of Kandahar with a minimum of bloodshed. Interviewed on CNN, he was vague on Omar's fate, specifying only that the Taliban leader "must distance himself completely from terrorism, the presence of foreign terrorists in Afghanistan.
"He must condemn terrorism in Afghanistan," Karzai said of Omar. "He must acknowledge that these terrorists have come into Afghanistan and have killed Afghan people and have hurt the international community. If he doesn't do that, he will not be safe."
Karzai said he had not consulted the United States about what should happen to Omar after the surrender of Kandahar.
"This is an Afghan question," he told the BBC. Karzai said he hoped the surrender would begin today.
Karzai and the United States also appeared to be at odds over what should be done with hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreigners who fought for al-Qaida and the Taliban. Karzai suggested that they would be expelled. But U.S. officials want them captured and held so they cannot shift their terrorist operations elsewhere.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said the offer would allow Omar to live in Kandahar under protection of local chieftains.
In Washington, U.S. officials insisted that the Taliban leaders must face justice, and they appeared to be demanding that Karzai's forces take the deposed rulers into custody.
President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said:
"The president has made it plain that those who harbor terrorists need to be brought to justice. That statement directly applies to Mullah Omar."
But U.S. officials left open exactly what kind of justice should be meted out to top Taliban leaders.
One of the "principal objectives" of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan is to "deal effectively" with both the Taliban and al-Qaida leadership, Rumsfeld said. He and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have stressed that Omar, whom they view as a partner of the al-Qaida terrorists, cannot be granted amnesty or be allowed to leave the country.
"The opposition forces in and around Kandahar, where it is believed Omar is, are fully aware of our very strong view on this," Rumsfeld said. "Our cooperation and assistance with those people would clearly take a turn south if something were to be done with respect to the senior people in that situation that was inconsistent with what I've said."
Omar "has been the principal person who has been harboring the al-Qaida network," he said.
But he indicated that Omar would not necessarily have to be turned over to the United States.
"I would like to see us take control or know that the control is in the hands of people who will handle the conclusion in a way similar to what we would do," Rumsfeld said. "How that might be, I don't know."
Fleischer said, "Whatever form justice takes is a form that will meet with the satisfaction of the president."