Taliban commanders may have agreed to surrender Kunduz to the Northern Alliance during talks in a city 100 miles away — but amid conflicting reports, fighting continues in the regime's beseiged northern stronghold.
ABCNEWS' Don Dahler reports that there is tank, artillery and small arms fire all around Kunduz, the Taliban's last remaining stronghold in northern Afghanistan, but spokesmen for various Northern Alliance ministries are giving differing accounts of the outcome of talks between representatives of the regime and rebels in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
A spokesman for the Northern Alliance's defense ministry told ABCNEWS on Thursday that the talks had failed, ending hopes raised by reports from around the region that an agreement had been reached for a peaceful settlement of the standoff around the city.
But The Associated Press reported that several rebel spokesmen said a surrender agreement has been reached. Under the deal, Afghan fighters would be allowed to safely leave the northern city. Meanwhile, the thousands of foreign mercenaries fighting for accused terror mastermind Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network would be put in "filtrations camps" until the alliance and the U.S.-led coalition can decide what to do with them
According to those spokesmen, the fighting in the city broke out because of a failure of communication. They said that the city could be turned over as soon as Saturday.
A spokesman for the Pentagon was skeptical that a peaceful resolution had been reached, saying that there were similar rumors on Wednesday and nothing came of them.
Rebel troops began shelling the city late on Thursday, and tanks were roaring towards Taliban defensive positions along with hundreds of Northern Alliance troops, apparently signaling the start of the offensive that the opposition has been threatening if talks failed.
Opposition commanders had said all week that they hoped to avoid a full-fledged siege of the city because of the toll it would take on the civilian population.
A flow of refugees continued to stream out of Kunduz, recounting executions of Afghan Taliban soldiers who wanted to surrender by the foreign mercenaries fighting for bin Laden, and civilian casualties of U.S. bombing.
Reports from around the embattled city said that for the first time in days there was Taliban mortar fire from inside the city aimed at the Northern Alliance troops who have been holding off on an assault while negotiators tried to work out a deal to end the seige peacefully.
A Military Solution?
A Northern Alliance spokesman in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, said earlier today that an agreement had been reached that would allow Afghans to lay down their arms and would submit the Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs fighting for al Qaeda to military trials.
But shortly thereafter the Northern Alliance's interior minister said that the talks being carried out in Mazar-e-Sharif had failed and that an offensive would now begin.
"We have tried to settle the issue of Kunduz through negotiation but we have been forced to chose a military solution," Yunus Qanuni told Reuters. "At the moment our forces are advancing. We hope by tomorrow we will have secured Kunduz."
The commander of the Taliban forces in Kunduz, Mullah Faizal, also told Reuters earlier on Thursday that the hard-line Islamic regime's troops would give themselves up — and he said that included the foreigners fighting alongside the Afghans.