As the booming sounds of battle continue to emanate from the besieged northern Afghan city of Kunduz, the opposition Northern Alliance claims Taliban forces trapped there are starting to surrender.
Northern Alliance officials say more than 1,100 of perhaps 13,000 Afghan and foreign soldiers believed to be defending the last Taliban stronghold in northern Afghanistan either surrendered or switched sides today, the Associated Press reported.
At the same time, it is believed thousands of non-Afghan Taliban fighters remain among the forces holding the city, vowing to fight until death to defend it — even as the Northern Alliance surrounds the city, poised to attack, and the U.S. targets them from the air with bombs.
The U.S. has been attacking the Taliban since Oct. 7 because it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, believed to be the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Deal for Foreigners’ Surrender?
Part of the resolve of the foreigners — mostly Arabs, Chechens and Pakistanis — is believed to be based upon fears they will be killed if they surrender to the Northern Alliance. But today, the Alliance's defense minister told ABCNEWS that a deal has been reached to allow the foreign fighters to surrender.
Defense Minister Atiqullah Baryalai said that the Alliance has opened a corridor out of Kunduz toward the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. In the corridor, foreign fighters will be separated from Afghans, with the Afghans allowed to go home and the foreigners given into the custody of the United Nations. Baryalai said this afternoon that at least 600 fighters have left the city via the corridor.
However, Fred Eckhard, a U.N. spokesman, said that with only a half-dozen humanitarian workers in Mazar-e-Sharif, "it'd be unrealistic to think they can take custody of hundreds of prisoners of war."
Echard said the U.N. is talking to Red Cross, which normally handles prisoner-of-war exchanges, to see what they can do. But he added that the Red Cross is not in the business of holding prisoners of war, and as victors, the Northern Alliance should receive the prisoners and deal with them according to international law.
Some Surrenders Peaceful, One Not
Earlier today, several news organizations reported that a suddenly increased volume of mostly Afghan Taliban fighters were pouring out of Kunduz aboard a variety of military and civilian vehicles.
Northern Alliance forces east of Kunduz shouted "welcome" and embraced and kissed some of the surrendering and defecting forces, the Associated Press reported.
"We gave up to the Northern Alliance," a smiling Taliban fighter, Shah Mahmoud, told the Associated Press. "They are our brothers, and this is our country. The foreigners will never surrender, I think."
The most senior Taliban member to defect indicated today that rifts within the group may go beyond an apparent divide between foreigners and Afghans in Kunduz, and all the way to the top. Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, a former Taliban deputy interior minister, told reporters he warned Taliban supreme leader Mohammed Omar that he should "tell the terrorists to leave."
"I have being saying for a long time that the foreigners [aligned with bin Laden] have to leave our country, that they have plans of their own and are destroying our country," Khaqzar said in Kabul, according to the Associated Press.
Indeed, at least one apparent Taliban surrender reportedly did not happen so peacefully. Britain's ITN News and CNN reported that a Taliban soldier awaiting a search near Mazar-e-Sharif detonated a hand grenade, killing himself and two other Taliban soldiers, a report not confirmed by ABCNEWS.
Taliban Under Pressure
Today's surrenders come amid heavy U.S. airstrikes on Kunduz and other targets in Afghanistan believed controlled by the Taliban or bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist organization.
On Friday, Pentagon officials confirmed they dropped 15,000-pound BLU-82 "daisy cutter" bombs Wednesday and Thursday, both near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. They were the third and fourth used in the campaign against the Taliban.
Targets near the southern city of Jalalabad, an area where some believe bin Laden may be hiding, also were under bombardment today, the Associated Press reported.
Bombs have been falling almost daily on Kunduz, and explosions could be heard coming from the area today by ABCNEWS' Don Dahler.
There have been conflicting reports about the likelihood of a Taliban surrender of Kunduz. Today, the Northern Alliance foreign ministry in the city of Taloqan claimed to ABCNEWS that Gen. Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord fighting with the Northern Alliance, had taken Kunduz from the west and the Taliban forces had surrendered. The claim contradicted other reports.
In what has become a standard response to frequent reports of Kunduz's surrender, a Pentagon source said, "It's a fluid situation. We'll wait for the dust to settle."
Peaceful Resolution Sought
The international community, working around the clock to secure a future for Afghanistan, has been eager to see a peaceful handover of Kunduz, fearing a bloodbath should the Northern Alliance have to launch a full ground offensive.
More broadly, the international community and the United Nations are seeking an orderly transfer of power throughout Afghanistan. Talks on the establishment of a new multi-ethnic, power-sharing government in Afghanistan are scheduled for Tuesday in Bonn, Germany.
Speaking on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America Friday, Barnett Rubin of New York University, an expert on Afghanistan, said the situation in Kunduz could play a crucial role in peace prospects in Afghanistan.
"If this ends up in a massacre where a very large number of Pashtuns [the primary ethnic group among the Taliban] are killed by Tajik and Uzbek soldiers of the Northern Alliance, it could have a poisonous effect on ethnic relations," Rubin said, "whereas if there is a peaceful surrender, it could help with the future."
ABCNEWS' Jim Sciutto and Don Dahler contributed to this report.