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.
"There will be peace," Faizal told a Reuters television correspondent who was one of several reporters allowed to enter the room where negotiations were being held with Northern Alliance commander Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Another Northern Alliance commander, Atta Mohammed, told The Associated Press by satellite telephone from Mazar-e-Sharif that the Taliban surrender came late Thursday afternoon Afghanistan time in a meeting with top Taliban commanders.
"We told them, `You are safe. We can transfer you to your provinces,'" Mohammed said.
Mohammed's spokesman Ashraf Nadeem told The Associated Press that 5,000 Northern Alliance troops would be sent to the city to oversee the surrender and to take the foreigners into custody.
One of the points that reportedly has stalled the talks was the Taliban demand that they surrender only to U.N. forces, not to Dostum's troops, who consist mainly of members of Afghanistan's Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara minorities. Most of the Taliban soldiers are Pashtun, the ethnic majority in Afghanistan.
Shamsulhaq Orienfad, a Northern Alliance spokesman in Dushanbe, said that under the terms of the agreement, the Afghans fighting for the Taliban would be allowed to return home once they had turned over their arms. He added, however, that "the Arab, Pakistani and Chechen mercenaries will be put before a court."
The Northern Alliance launched another offensive on Thursday, trying to take the town of Maidan-Shahr, west of Kabul, where negotiations for a surrender of Taliban forces also failed, ABCNEWS has learned.
There are about 1,200 Taliban soldiers in the town, but Northern Alliance commanders said they believe they will capture the area by Saturday.
Shaving Beards, Changing Clothes
Some of the refugees fleeing Kunduz on Wednesday told ABCNEWS' Don Dahler that Taliban soldiers are shaving their beards, throwing away any clothes that could identify them and fleeing the city.
Even though the Taliban hold only one other city, Kandahar, and four surrounding provinces in southern Afghanistan, the commander of the U.S. military operation dampened expectations for a quick, complete end to the war.
"We still have a lot of work to do," Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, said on Wednesday.
In other developments:
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, but told to the Taliban on Thursday. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition says they are "delighted" with the news of Pakistan's move.
Some 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.
Fearing bin Laden and his associates might try to slip out of Afghanistan, U.S. officials announced Wednesday they would stop and board suspect ships off the coast of Pakistan as well as target aircraft trying to escape Afghan airspace.
The United Nations has begun handing out food, blankets and tents in Kabul, but another convoy in western Afghanistan was robbed by commanders who apparently stole the food for their own village. And near the presidential palace Wednesday, two young boys were badly injured in an explosion. Witnesses say they were either playing or collecting wood when they picked up a loaded grenade launcher. It was unclear which of Afghanistan's many armed forces left it behind.
New York City officials have sharply reduced the list of people dead and missing in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. After comparing various lists of missing persons prevented to various agencies, city officials now say 3,357 people are missing and 594 bodies have been identified. The numbers include those killed on the planes that hit the twin towers. At one time the list of missing and feared dead was about 6,000.
ABCNEWS' John McWethy, Jim Wooten and Don Dahler contributed to this report.