Rebels Assault Kunduz; Talks in Doubt

There are conflicting reports about whether Taliban commanders have agreed to surrender Kunduz to the Northern Alliance during talks in a city 100 miles away — but one thing is clear, fighting has resumed 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 today 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, and the only point that remained to be resolved was the fate of the thousands of foreign mercenaries in the city fighting for accused terror mastermind Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

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 today, and tanks were roaring towards Taliban defensive positions along with hundreds of Northern Alliance troops, apparently signalling the start of the offensive that the opposition has been threatening if talks failed.

On Tuesday, the rebel leaders gave the city's defenders an ultimatum to surrender within three days or face an "all-out assault," but U.S. officials Wednesday refused to put a timetable on when the siege of Kunduz would end.

"I don't know how long that battle will continue," Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, said on Wednesday after his first visit to the country since the campaign of airstrikes began on Oct. 7. "But at the end of the day we will prevail in the city of Kunduz."

Opposition commanders had said all week that they hoped to avoid a full-fledged seige of the city, the Taliban's last remaining stronghold in northern Afghanistan, 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 Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, 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.

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