KABUL, Nov 15: The Taliban were cornered in their southern Afghan bastion and surrounded in their last city in the north on Thursday, but still defiant they would pursue the anti-US war.

The fate of Kandahar remained unclear, with anti-Taliban tribal fighters reported to be in control of the main airport but the militia insisting it had the city.

The Northern Alliance said up to 30,000 Taliban fighters, including more than 10,000 foreigners, were surrounded in the northern city of Kunduz.

An alliance general said an offensive on the trapped city had been held up to allow civilians to get out. Taliban forces evacuated Ghazni province, southwest of Kabul, as they retreated closer to Kandahar where hostile tribal groups battled their way to the outskirts.

US warplanes bombed the city, which is the headquarters of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. The Afghan Islamic Press quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying eight people were killed, 22 injured and widespread damage caused.

Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pakhtoon tribal leader who has the support of the US, said he was trying to negotiate the surrender of Kandahar as fighting raged on the city’s outskirts.

A delegation of tribal elders from six Afghan provinces is also to go to Kandahar to negotiate the peaceful surrender of the Taliban, aides to former king Mohammed Zahir Shah said in Pakistan.

Karzai said the airport had already fallen into the hands of local tribesmen and there was chaos in the city.

US warplanes also bombed positions around Kunduz, but an opposition general said a threatened offensive had been held back to let civilians flee.

General Mohammad Daud said the Taliban had up to 30,000 fighters, “including more than 10,000 foreign mercenaries, Chechens, Pakistanis and Uighurs” dug in around the northern city.

“The town is surrounded, but its mayor has urged us to put off an attack for two days to allow civilians to flee,” Daud added.

“Our task in this town is to distinguish between the Afghan Taliban and the international terrorists who are fighting with them,” Daud told a press conference in the nearby city of Taloqan, which fell earlier this week.

But Omar and Osama remained defiant, with both vowing to die rather than surrender.

“The current situation of Afghanistan is related to a big cause — that is the destruction of America,” Omar said in an interview with the BBC Pushto language service.

“The plan is going ahead and God willing it is being implemented, but it is a huge task beyond the will and comprehension of human beings. If God’s help is with us, this will happen within a short period of time.”

Osama said he would rather die than be handed over to the Americans.

The AIP quoted Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdullah as saying: “America can never arrest Osama bin Laden alive.

“Osama has decided that death is better than being handed over to the Americans. He prefers death.”

Abdullah also dismissed rumours that Osama has been arrested.

US special forces have stepped up the manhunt for Osama, setting up roadblocks and staking out likely hideouts.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reiterated Washington’s resolve to track down Osama, but admitted the accused leader could avoid US forces and sneak out of Afghanistan.

“My guess is what he’d probably do is take a helicopter down one of those valleys that we couldn’t pick up and pop over to some part of the country where there is an airfield and have a plane waiting for him,” Rumsfeld said in an interview published by The New York Times on Thursday.

“I’ve heard reports that helicopters have been observed in and around the Pakistani border in weeks past that we were not able to detect.”—AFP

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