Non-Afghan Taliban may go free

MERCY: The Northern Alliance is willing to let about 10,000 foreign volunteers go without further bloodshed if other countries would be willing to accept them

AFP , KABUL

Wed, Nov 21, 2001 - Page 1

Efforts to forge a post-Taliban government progressed yesterday, as Northern Alliance commanders offered an exit to some non-Afghan fighters holed up with the Taliban in the northern city of Kunduz despite US opposition to any "negotiated surrender."

Germany said it offered to host an all-party conference on the future of Afghanistan and is awaiting a response from the UN, which is overseeing the international efforts.

Iranian state radio said the conference would take place in Berlin on Saturday.

UN envoy Francesc Vendrell "is very hopeful [about giving] a positive announcement" at a news conference later in the day, a spokesman said in Kabul.

Vendrell met late Monday with General Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the Alliance's defense minister, as well as foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and interior minister Younis Qanooni in talks the spokesman described as "warm."

US planes pursued their raids on Kunduz and the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar, the last two major pockets of Taliban resistance.

A Taliban commander said Monday that he was willing to surrender Kunduz under UN supervision, after weekend bombings killed more than 1,000 people.

The Alliance's General Mohammad Daoud said yesterday that foreign "mercenaries," except "those who have committed crimes," could be allowed to leave the besieged city if the UN or other countries accept them.

Estimates of Taliban troops defending Kunduz run as high as 30,000, with a hardcore element of Arab, Chechen and Pakistani al-Qaeda fighters making up about one-third.

Daoud said he rejected a Taliban request that they be taken by convoy from Kunduz to Kandahar, where talks between the Taliban and fellow Pashtun tribal leaders for a peaceful handover appeared deadlocked.

"Our holy war continues," a ranking Taliban official said yesterday at Spin Boldak, near the besieged city. "There are no negotiations going on in Kandahar."

Negotiators in Kabul were hoping to flesh out a plan for a post-Taliban government after an intensive round of political talks involving Northern Alliance president Burhanuddin Rabbani and envoys from the UN, the US and Britain.

Qanooni said an agreement was reached "in principle," but added: "On the details, we have some observations" that would be aired later yesterday.

US special envoy James Dobbins said he was confident a UN-backed meeting of eminent Afghans could take place this week.

An inter-Afghan conference at a neutral European venue would be the first step of a five-point UN plan for a broad-based new Afghan government.

The Alliance is "ready to move forward to the creation of a new, broader government, which will represent all regions, all ethnicities," Dobbins said.

After chasing the Taliban from the Afghan capital a week ago, the Northern Alliance had been hesitant about the UN plan, prompting concerns that it is unwilling to relinquish its hold on power.

The UN and US envoys had met earlier with exiled Afghan leaders, including former king Mohammed Zahir Shah, seen as a potential unifying force despite having spent the last 28 years in exile.

A spokesman for Zahir Shah, 87, warned in Rome that any attempt to sideline the ex-king would increase internal strife.