Warriors circle Kandahar
Compiled from Times wires
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Tribal warriors claimed to be making a major assault on Taliban forces defending Kandahar's airport Saturday night as thousands more fighters from another anti-Taliban faction headed toward the city from the north.
South of Kandahar, U.S. jets pounded Taliban positions around the airport incessantly, refugees from the embattled militia's last stronghold said. Some told of increasingly desperate Taliban soldiers moving from house to house, trying to hide among civilians from the fury of American airstrikes.
"People think it's just like doomsday. They're in a terrible situation," said one refugee, Mohebullah, who arrived in the Pakistani border town of Chaman on Saturday.
More than 1,000 U.S. Marines dug in at a desert base about 70 miles southwest of Kandahar stayed out of the battle, the Associated Press reported, quoting a senior officer at the base who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Washington Post reported that forces with Britain's elite Special Air Service are working with the Marines. British commandos conducted raids inside Afghanistan last week, the Post said, quoting a Pakistani aviation source. A British newspaper, the Telegraph, reported that four soldiers were wounded in raids on Taliban-held caves near Kandahar.
In the capital, Kabul, the Northern Alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah, told reporters he thinks Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants in the al-Qaida network are hiding in one of three provinces around Kandahar: Uruzgan, Zabul or Helmand.
Abdullah denied reports that alliance forces were fighting near Kandahar and said that some commanders with personal contacts in the region had only gone to offer assistance.
"We have sent people, and if assistance is needed, our people will coordinate those efforts in mobilizing more (of the) population against the Taliban," Abdullah said.
The alliance isn't pushing to get involved in the battle for Kandahar, Abdullah insisted. But after more than five weeks of "severe fighting around Kandahar with little progress, we think we all should join hands to get rid of this menace," he added.
U.S. officials have said the search for bin Laden, accused by Washington of masterminding the Sept. 11 terror attacks, is focusing on the Kandahar area and al-Qaida's Tora Bora base in eastern Afghanistan.
There were conflicting accounts about U.S. bombs hitting villages late Friday and Saturday in eastern Afghanistan.
Villagers said 150 to 250 civilians were killed. Provincial officials also said U.S. planes struck the villages, although they put the death toll much lower. An American spokesman in Washington said U.S. planes attacked a nearby military target but denied any bombs hit the villages.
Reporting on fighting around Kandahar, people from several southern Pashtun tribes said fighters loyal to former Kandahar governor Gul Agha launched an assault in the airport area Saturday night.
Mohammed Anwar, a tribal ally of Agha, said in Pakistan that front-line commanders told him by radio they had advanced within 2 miles of the airport, but paused because U.S. advisers said they wanted to bomb Taliban defenses before the final attack.
"We are waiting for the air attacks to subside," Anwar said. "After that we'll move."
To the north of the city, thousands of fighters loyal to another Pashtun leader, Hamid Karzai, had moved to within 30 miles of Kandahar, said Karzai's brother, Ahmed Karzai.
Ahmed Karzai said his brother's fighters were meeting no resistance as they moved toward Kandahar, where the Taliban originated in the early 1990s.
In an interview with the BBC's Pashto-language service aired Saturday night, Hamid Karzai said he had met some "elders from the city and a few commanders near the city."
"I assured them that if the Taliban put down their arms they would have an amnesty and come to no harm," he said. "We're going toward Kandahar. We're going forward trying to solve the problems through negotiations."
The Taliban retreated to Kandahar after punishing U.S. airstrikes and an offensive by the Northern Alliance forced them to abandon Kabul and most of the country last month.
However, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has vowed to defend Kandahar and has called on his fighters to accept "martyrdom" rather than surrender the city.
Travelers reaching both Kabul and Pakistan reported fighting around the city and heavy U.S. air attacks.
"In the last 24 hours, five minutes haven't gone by without us hearing bombing and the roaring of planes," Kandahar resident Khalil Ahmed said in Chaman.
Refugees said that some shops were still open in Kandahar and that the market in the old city was bustling as residents shopped for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan in two weeks. Shoppers move about the market quickly, however, to avoid being outside for long in case of an air attack, they said.
"There are a lot of Taliban in the street, but now they are mixed with the civilians," said Gul Mohammed, a taxi driver who arrived in Kabul on Saturday. "As soon as the jets come, the Taliban go into the streets with the civilians and they mix with the people."
Mohammed said residents had started asking Taliban fighters to leave the city, "but they tell them to stay out in a friendly way, because if they say it strongly the Taliban will arrest them."
Reports also emerged from southern Afghanistan that Kandahar's governor had been killed in a recent U.S. airstrike. According to the Post, three separate Afghan sources said Mohammed Hassan, a close associate of Omar, was killed during a meeting with local Taliban commanders in a village west of Kandahar.
Pentagon officials said they had received no information indicating Hassan had been killed.
His death, if confirmed, would be a major blow to the Taliban's leadership. The one-legged former resistance fighter presided over a harsh crackdown on personal freedoms since taking over as governor in 1995. Since U.S. bombing began Oct. 7, he has spoken out several times, insisting that the Taliban would fight to the death.
In other developments:
A military transport plane was scheduled to fly out today with the body of Johnny "Mike" Spann, a CIA agent fatally shot Nov. 25 while interrogating foreign, pro-Taliban prisoners who staged an uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan.
In Chaman, Canadian and Pakistani negotiators won the release of Ken Hechtman, a freelance journalist detained Tuesday by the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
Russian emergency officials opened a permanent air corridor between Tajikistan and Afghanistan with an Il-76 cargo plane carrying 37 tons of humanitarian aid, spokesman Mirzo Zieyev said.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times wire desk
From the AP