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KABUL, Dec 8: Conflicting reports have emerged from Kandahar about who is in control of the last bastion of the Taliban as rival anti-Taliban leaders squabbled over control of the town.

Amid the confusion over the fate of Kandahar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mulla Mohammed Omar, appeared to have escaped the city, leaving the US-led forces encircling his last bastion unsure of his whereabouts.

Forces loyal to tribal chief Gul Agha, the former governor of Kandahar, said they had taken control of the city and were prepared to fight a rival faction under Mulla Naqibullah for control of it.

But witnesses fleeing the city and the Afghan Islamic Press said no one faction had complete control, amid fears that fresh fighting could break out between the rival groups.

Gul Agha’s spokesman Jalal Khan said his commander had installed himself in the governor’s mansion and had ordered Mulla Naqibullah to pull out or face attack.

“We have sent neutral people to Mulla Naqibullah, who is at the main military headquarters in Kandahar,” Khan said. “We need a response (from) him. Yes or no. Give up or be ready for fighting.”

In Quetta, Gul Agha’s cousin and spokesman said that five of Gul Agha’s men had been killed in clashes.

The threat of further intra-Afghan violence took the shine off the fall of the Taliban’s last bastion, which ought to have been the first victory by the new interim regime approved by Afghan factions in talks in Bonn on Wednesday.

Kandahar residents and tribal elders said by telephone that Mulla Naqibullah’s forces were the first anti-Taliban forces into the city, but that Gul Agha’s men had arrived soon afterwards and there had been brief clashes.

“Gul Agha is right now in Kandahar city,” said Abdul Khaliq, a former Afghan consul general to Quetta, “He is in the governor’s house. He wants the job so he wants the house.”

Hafiz Abdul Rub, a deserting Taliban fighter who left Kandahar on Saturday and arrived at Chaman, said no one faction had control of the city.

“There are still Arab Taliban moving around the city. They are armed,” he said. “No one is in control of the city. Mulla Naqib should be in control but no one is.” Hundreds of armed Taliban were seen leaving the city on Friday and at least one fleeing convoy was attacked by US Marines, who claimed killing seven militia in their first confirmed ground offensive.

Talking to The Washington Post, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld welcomed the fall of Kandahar but warned the situation could deteriorate.

“The Kandahar situation is a bit like a Wild West show,” he said. “It is very untidy.”

Under a deal struck by the new government’s prime minister, Hamid Karzai, Kandahar’s Taliban defenders were to have surrendered to his US-backed forces, who have vowed to capture Mulla Omar.

Khan said Gul Agha had not captured Omar, but claimed the Taliban leader might still be in the city after having been captured by Karzai or Naqibullah.

“Mulla Omar is a criminal and the main culprit. Whether he is with Hamid Karzai or Mulla Naqib our men are chasing him and they will track him down along with his close aides,” said Khan. A Taliban official, however, claimed Mulla Omar had escaped.

“I can confirm it to you that he is no longer in Kandahar. He is out of Kandahar,” the Pakistan-based official said.

“I have checked with my people and they have told me he is in no-one’s custody.”

HUNT FOR OSAMA: The anti-Taliban fighters and US warplanes closing in on Osama’s supposed lair pounded positions held by his Al-Qaeda fighters among the snow-capped peaks of Tora Bora, 30km south of Jalalabad.

“We hope, God willing, that we will arrest him very soon. We think that today or the day after today we will martyr them,” said Hazrat Ali, a commander of the US-backed Afghan forces fighting their way into the mountains.—AFP