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Defiant Taliban says bin Laden no longer its guest

Defiant Taliban says bin Laden no longer its guest

Author: Sayed Salahuddin and Rosalind Russell
Publication: www.expressindia.com
Date: November 19, 2001
URL: http://www.expressindia.com/fullstory.php?newsid=4672

Kabul, November 18: US bombs pounded Afghanistan again on Sunday but the beleaguered Taliban held on in its southern bastion of Kandahar, dismissing reports that it would retreat to fight a guerrilla campaign in the mountains. The Taliban said Osama bin Laden -- prime suspect for the September 11 hijack attacks that killed some 4,600 people in the US -- had left the territory they controlled and they did not know where he was. The Pentagon said he was still in the country.

The Afghan and foreign forces lined up against the militia squabbled over the country's future and whether international peacekeepers should be deployed. The Northern Alliance, which drove the Taliban out of Kabul last week, insisted it wanted to build an inclusive new government -- but gave no time frame. Ethnic Pashtun tribes in the south, deeply suspicious of the mainly ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance, said they were pursuing their own efforts to agree a bloodless settlement with the Taliban and warned the Alliance not to march on Kandahar. The Taliban has been pounded by 43 days of relentless US air strikes to punish them for harbouring bin Laden.

WHERE IS BIN LADEN?

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) quoted the Taliban's envoy to Pakistan as saying bin Laden was not in the rapidly shrinking Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan and he did not know where the fugitive Saudi-born militant was. Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who returned to Pakistan on Saturday after a visit to Kandahar, had told journalists then that bin Laden was still in Afghanistan. The Pentagon says it believes bin Laden is still in the country, and Britain's Sunday Times newspaper reported that US and British special forces had narrowed down the hunt to a small area of south-eastern Afghanistan.

AIP said US bombing early on Sunday had killed at least 30 villagers near the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, and that 62 people had been killed in raids on near the city of Khost, site of many of bin Laden's former training camps. The reports could not be independently verified. Exiled former King Zahir Shah, seen as a key figure in a post-Taliban government, said a broad-based government was the only way to end decades of conflict in the war-weary country.

"The only hope for long-standing peace and stability in Afghanistan is to put in place a political structure which is representative of all Afghan people and all sectors including Pashtuns, Tajiks and Uzbeks," he told Britain's Sunday Telegraph. "If this is not in place then peace will not come." The military advance of the Northern Alliance, which swept into Kabul on Tuesday just days after starting a major land offensive, has far outstripped political progress on agreeing a future government for Afghanistan.

The Alliance had told other factions and its foreign allies that it would not enter Kabul until the structure of a broad-based post-Taliban government had been agreed. But the Alliance now holds the capital, while a political deal is days or weeks away at best. The UN says the Northern Alliance is obstructing efforts to arrange a crucial meeting on the country's political future. The Alliance wants talks on Afghanistan's future to take place in Kabul, while the UN wants a neutral location. Seeking to end the impasse, UN envoy Francesc Vendrell arrived in Kabul on Saturday for meetings with Northern Alliance leaders. His arrival signalled the return of the U.N. to the ravaged city after an absence of more than two months.

Zahir Shah's son-in-law, General Abdul Wali, told theSunday Telegraph the king was worried by the Alliance seizure of Kabul. "The Northern Alliance promised us that it would stop at the northern gates of Kabul to give others in the South time to move. But they did not stop," Wali said. "We're not judging anyone, just saying a promise is normally something you keep. Obviously, the king is very concerned because he fears fighting might break out between factions and cause more casualties to innocent civilians."

DISPUTE OVER FOREIGN TROOPS

The issue of foreign troops on Afghan soil drove a wedge between some Northern Alliance commanders and the international US-led coalition that played a crucial role in aiding the opposition's military successes. Senior Northern Alliance figures said that as long as they maintained security in Kabul, there would be no need for an international peacekeeping force. Some were unhappy about the arrival of 100 British special forces troops near Kabul.

"The agreement is that less than 100 British troops would come to help secure the airport to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid," Haji Qahar, a senior aide to Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, told Reuters in Kabul. "At the moment we don't have a problem with them but there is no need for more soldiers. We have many of our own soldiers." Ousted former president Burhanuddin Rabbani returned to Kabul on Saturday five years after the Taliban drove him out. But his arrival will not be widely welcomed.

The Pashtun majority and Shi'ite groups fear the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance that entered Kabul on Tuesday will try to cling to power rather than build an inclusive government. The deposed President, who still holds Afghanistan's United Nations seat, is unpopular even within some factions of the Northern Alliance. Many anti-Taliban groups want Zahir Shah to head a new regime rather than the ethnic Tajik Rabbani. The white-bearded and white-turbaned Rabbani, 61, said he had no intention of trying to hang on to power.

He said the Northern Alliance would respect the will of a traditional Loya Jirga -- or grand assembly of tribal elders and faction chiefs -- to decide on a future government. But he did not say when such an Assembly would be held. Worried Kabul residents well remember the vicious factional squabbles among the group's leaders after they toppled Afghanistan's communist rulers and seized the capital in 1992. They turned on each other and a civil war erupted that sparked almost daily rocket attacks on Kabul which killed 50,000 residents in five years. Banditry and lawlessness were rife as warlords carved up the country into their own personal fiefdoms.
 


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