Refugees Hint at Waning Taliban Stronghold

A flow of refugees streamed out of Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in northern Afghanistan, on a day when U.S. forces continued to drop bombs on the province.

Negotiations between the Northern Alliance and Taliban forces continue, and according to one report, there has been an agreement for all Taliban, Afghan and foreign alike, to surrender. But the details are still being worked out in a meeting in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

In a sign of the city's imminent defeat, some of the refugees fleeing the city told ABCNEWS' Don Dahler that Taliban soldiers are shaving their beards, throwing away any clothes that could identify them and fleeing the city.

There have also been reports of Pakistani, Arab and Chechen soldiers fighting for Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network shooting Taliban soldiers who want to surrender.

Despite the existence of only one other remaining Taliban stronghold, in Kandahar, 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 said today after a visit to Afghanistan for the first time since the campaign began on Oct. 7. It was the first such trip inside Afghanistan by a senior U.S. military official.

Franks said he entered Afghanistan on Tuesday evening to meet with opposition leaders at Bagram air base outside Kabul. He said he would visit several Gulf nations in the coming days to discuss the war on terror.

The United States has agreed to stop bombing locations around Kunduz if that would improve the chances of a Taliban surrender — but the Pentagon said it would not pull back on the airstrikes if that would allow Taliban or al Qaeda leaders to flee Afghanistan.

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

"I don't know how long that battle will continue," Franks said. "But at the end of the day we will prevail in the city of Kunduz."

The Taliban Speaks Out

Franks' statement of resolve echoed a similar statement of commitment from the spokesman of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Syed Tayyad Agha said the Taliban would not give up the four provinces of Afghanistan it still controls, and denied that the series of defeats the regime's troops suffered across the country had left the Taliban a spent force.

"They have decided to defend the presently controlled areas," Agha said. "We will try our best and we will defend our nation … and we will not give any chance to anybody to disturb our Islamic rule in Kandahar and other provinces."

Omar will stay in the Taliban's southern bastion of Kandahar and the Taliban will fight to the death to defend the southern provinces still under its control, Agha said.

Agha also said the Taliban had lost communication with bin Laden and did not know where he was.

"We have no idea where he is," Agha said. "There is no relation right now [between bin Laden and the Taliban]. There is no communication."

The Taliban assertion came as a report appeared in the Saudi Arabian press which said the accused terror mastermind told supporters to kill him if it appeared likely he would fall into the hands of the Americans pursuing him.

Quoting unidentified U.S. and European diplomats, the newspaper al-Watan said the U.S. administration was convinced it would not capture bin Laden alive after Taliban defectors revealed his death wish to CIA agents in Afghanistan.

"Bin Laden has given precise instructions to his closest aides, who will remain by his side until the end, to shoot him if he becomes surrounded by U.S. troops and cannot escape," the newspaper said.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said it sounds like bin Laden is feeling pressure as a result of the collapse of the Taliban and perhaps from the $25 million reward the United States has put on his head and has been advertising in Afghanistan with radio broadcasts and airdrops of leaflets.

"I think it does suggest that this is a man on the run, that this is a man who is being deserted by people who sheltered him not long ago, that this is a man with a price on his head," Wolfowitz said today.

Osama on the Run

Fearing the accused architect of the Sept. 11 attacks and his associates might try to slip out of Afghanistan, U.S. officials announced today they would stop and board suspect ships off the coast of Pakistan as well as target aircraft trying to escape Afghan airspace.

Officials said military forces have destroyed two or three enemy aircraft in recent weeks, but officials do not know if they were carrying any important figures.

A Navy official said it has not yet stopped and boarded any ships so far, nor has it received any information that the escape route is in terrorists' plans.

But the long, sparsely populated Pakistani coast has often been a stopping point for smugglers, and many port towns are home to hard-line Islamic parties that support the Taliban and bin Laden.

In addition, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he wants to increase U.S. firepower in Afghanistan, specifically by basing more AC-130 gunships closer to Afghanistan so they can support opposition forces.

"It would be helpful for us to have AC-130s up north, particularly when you have a situation like Kunduz, because that particular weapons system and platform can put out an enormous amount of ordnance with a great deal of precision," he said.

ABCNEWS has learned the U.S. and France are now making final plans to move combat aircraft close to Afghanistan for the first time. The tiny Asian republic of Kyrgystan — just north of the Afghan border — appears to be the first choice.

More American special operations troops were also being sent into the southern part of Afghanistan, partly to deal with the situation in Kandahar, which continues to suffer airstrikes from U.S. warplanes.

Hundreds of U.S. special forces have already spent weeks on the ground in Afghanistan hunting bin Laden. Franks refused to rule out the insertion of large numbers of U.S. and allied ground troops to hunt for terrorists and Taliban leaders.

The United States is preparing to add Marines to the mix of forces available in Afghanistan as well. As many as 1,600 of them, many of them trained in commando operations, are now on the amphibious ships USS Bataan and USS Peleliu off the coast of Pakistan, and officials say within days they will be ready to go ashore.

Even in Peace, Kabul Remains Bloody

In other developments:

The United States has told Pakistan it no longer sees any reason for the Taliban embassy in Islamabad to stay open, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

Clare Short, the British international development secretary, criticized the United States for not standing behind the aid efforts in Afghanistan. Short said the U.S. is too focused on bin Laden and al Qaeda to respond enough at a high level. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw denied any tension between British and U.S. military leaders over how to distribute humanitarian aid and the use of ground forces to deliver food and other needed supplies to the Afghan people.

Two-thousand more troops have begun arriving in Kuwait to take part in desert war games and act as a deterrent to Iraq. There have been several incidents along the Iraq-Kuwait border in recent weeks.

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 today, 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 the Afghanistan's many armies left it behind.

Four U.S. helicopter crew members were injured Tuesday when their aircraft crash-landed in southern Afghanistan, according to U.S. Central Command, which runs the war in Afghanistan. It was not known why the helicopter crashed, according to a Pentagon statement, except that it was not due to enemy fire. None of the injuries were life-threatening, though they included broken bones, the statement said.

A meeting of various Afghan factions and international diplomats that was scheduled to begin Monday in Berlin will be held in Bonn instead, a U.N. spokesman announced today. "It's now firm. It will be Bonn and not Berlin," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

France will send its only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, to the Indian Ocean next month to support the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced the decision in parliament after President Jacques Chirac met key cabinet members to discuss developments in the conflict.

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.

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