Northern Alliance forces maintained a siege around Kunduz today in an attempt to get the Taliban to surrender control of one of their last strategic strongholds in northern Afghanistan.
After a 10-day lull following recent Northern Alliance successes, the anti-Taliban forces, aided by heavy U.S. airstrikes, launched a concentrated overnight offensive against Taliban troops holed up in the northern Afghan town of Kunduz. Pentagon officials today confirmed they dropped 15,000-pound BLU-82 "daisy cutter" bombs Wednesday and Thursday, both near Kandahar. They were the third and fourth used in the campaign against the Taliban.
Following an early morning pause in fighting amid reports of negotiations between representatives of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban for a handover of the northern Afghan city, U.S. warplanes resumed the offensive in daylight hours.
Reporting from the neighboring town of Taloqan today, ABCNEWS' Don Dahler said the region saw heavy overnight U.S. aerial bombardments that saw a mushroom of smoke and dust rising out of Kunduz.
Today's attacks followed a day of conflicting reports about the likelihood of a Taliban surrender of the strategic northern Afghan city. The international community, working around the clock to secure a future for Afghanistan, has been eager to see a peaceful handover of the city, fearing a bloodbath should the Northern Alliance have to launch a full ground offensive.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations, officials announced a one-day delay in a conference in Germany aimed setting up a new Afghan government following a collapse of the Taliban. The meeting will open Tuesday instead of Monday because of delays in getting all the participants to the venue in Bonn.
Fighting to the Bitter End
An estimated 15,000 Taliban soldiers are holed up in Kunduz, a number of them foreign mercenaries fighting for the Taliban. Many captured foreign fighters — or "Afghan Arabs" as Taliban soldiers of Pakistani, Arab and Chechen descent are called — have met a grisly end at the hands of Northern Alliance troops during the past few days.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) today announced it had recovered about 600 bodies in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. However, the international relief organization refused to specify whether the victims had died in the fighting or had been executed after the Northern Alliance captured the city from the Taliban two weeks ago.
In southern Afghanistan, the Pashtun-dominated Taliban continues to defend Kandahar, the city that spawned the hard-line Islamic regime, amid reports that the Taliban's supreme spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had fled the city.
But a Taliban spokesman today dismissed the reports and vowed that troops were ready to fight until the bitter end to defend the ancient city.
Situation Still Fluid
More than a week after the capital of Kabul fell from Taliban control, the situation in Afghanistan is still fluid as reports about the outcome of negotiations for the surrender of Kunduz appeared to swing wildly from hopeful to desultory.
On Thursday, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord fighting with the Northern Alliance, said a deal had been struck for the handover of Kunduz. But a spokesman for Burhanuddin Rabbani told reporters the ousted Afghan president and an important Alliance leader was unhappy with the deal and vowed to launch an offensive to capture Kunduz.
Evidence of growing rifts between Northern Alliance commanders have added pressure on the international community to arrive at an administrative solution for the war-ravaged country.
On Tuesday, representatives of various ethnic groups will meet in the German city of Bonn to hold talks on the future of Afghanistan under auspices of the United Nations. The talks were earlier scheduled for Monday, but a spokesman for Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan today said they were postponed due to logistical considerations.
Speaking on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America today, 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 are killed by Tajik and Uzbek soldiers of the Northern Alliance, it could have a poisonous effect on ethnic relations, whereas if there is a peaceful surrender, it could help with the future," said Rubin.
WFP Begins Airlifting Aid
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in the country continued to be grave as refugees continued to flee Kunduz. In the south, thousands of desperate refugees are risking starvation in Spin Boldak, south of Kandahar near the Chaman border crossing as international aid agencies have been unable to get humanitarian assistance into the Taliban-controlled area.
As the fierce Afghan winter threatens to isolate pockets of the war and drought-ravaged country, the World Food Program today said it had begun airlifting supplies to the mountainous northeast.
Hercules C-130 transport planes were flying in from Tajikistan in the north while food convoys were making their way from Pakistan in the south although the trucks were still not entering through the Chaman crossing.
In other developments:
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appealed to the United Nations to help prevent the killings of Taliban fighters in Kunduz.
Pakistan has closed the Taliban embassy in Islamabad, leaving the Afghanistan regime without ties to a single nation. A spokesman for the Pakistan Foreign Ministry said the decision to close the embassy was made earlier this week. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition says they are "delighted" with the news of Pakistan's move.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw traveled to Pakistan and met with Musharraf and U.N. Deputy Envoy Francesc Vendrell to discuss an interim government for Afghanistan.
About 5,000 French troops will be committed to the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan, a Defense Ministry spokesman said. There will be 2,450 naval and air force personnel involved in the deployment of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, due to arrive in the Indian Ocean in mid-December. So far, 2,000 French troops have been involved in logistical and intelligence support, with 300 of them taking part in security and humanitarian aid missions around Mazar-e-Sharif.
ABCNEWS' John McWethy, Jim Wooten and Don Dahler contributed to this report.