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Fight erupts, Taliban to surrender Konduz

By United Press International

KONDUZ, Afghanistan, Nov. 22 (UPI) -- Amid conflicting reports that Taliban representatives in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif had negotiated a surrender of Konduz for Sunday, Northern Alliance forces backed by U.S. bombers reportedly mounted a fierce, new offensive Thursday night.

As the sun set Thursday, Northern Alliance tanks pushed forward towards Taliban front lines and U.S. war planes bombed Taliban positions, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

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Earlier CNN reported that Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum said two-day negotiations in Mazar-i-Sharif with Taliban Gen. Mullah Faizal brought an agreement to surrender by the beginning of next week.

Under the terms negotiated, the Afghan Taliban would have been permitted to return home under an amnesty, but the nearly 10,000 foreign fighters with them would have been arrested and tried.

Some Taliban fighters had already reportedly surrendered as Northern Alliance forces struck, according to BBC, which also said the fighting could represent a struggle between different opposition forces in the alliance.

Konduz is the last Taliban stronghold in the north of Afghanistan and would be a strategic acquisition for channeling supplies to Northern Alliance forces as they make a push toward the last remaining Taliban-controlled territories in the south.

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The militant group still holds a few provinces in the south of that country including their traditional stronghold city of Kandahar.

Earlier Thursday, U.S. forces temporarily halted their strikes on Konduz during the truce talks. However, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has warned that the United States could not guarantee the safety of the Taliban soldiers holed up in Konduz.

He also has refused to let the foreign fighters leave safely, saying that he did not want them to go the neighboring countries and create a problem there.

Although many of these foreigners are from Pakistan, the Pakistani government, which has vowed to fight Muslim extremists at home, appears unwilling to accept them.

Those managing to reach Pakistan have been arrested and put in jail. This includes a local Taliban leader, Sufi Mohammed, who went to Afghanistan last month with estimated 10,000 volunteers.

While most of these volunteers returned home before Kabul's fall, many have been stranded in Konduz while some others are prisoners of war in Mazar-i-Sharif.

In other developments, 50 French soldiers will be sent to Mazar-i-Sharif, making France the third Western nation to put troops on the ground in Afghanistan, French Minister for Cooperation and Francophonie Charles Josselin told reporters in the Uzbek capital Thursday.

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Josselin said the soldiers -- currently stationed at Uzbekistan's Khanabad air base -- would secure the airfield at Mazar-i-Sharif, in much the same way as 100 British special forces had secured the airstrip at Bagram, north of Kabul. They could be joined by up to 250 others if a multilateral agreement among France, the United States, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan's ruling Northern Alliance is reached.

About 1,000 U.S. soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division are already deployed at the Khanabad air base near the city of Karshi in southwestern Uzbekistan near the country's short border with Afghanistan. Apart from the British at Bagram, small numbers of U.S. Special Operations forces are the only foreign troops in the war-battered country.

In Islamabad, the Taliban shut down its embassy Thursday and abandoned its offices, one day after Washington urged Pakistan to end diplomatic ties with the Afghan militia.

Pakistan has already closed Taliban consulates in the cities of Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi.

"We have closed the mission, stopped all official work in Pakistan," said Sohail Shaheen, the former Taliban deputy ambassador in Islamabad. "We are not issuing more visas."

Taliban officials said they received instruction from Pakistan's ministry for foreign affairs to close the embassy when they came to work Thursday morning.

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Pakistan was the last country with diplomatic ties with the Taliban, which lost the Afghan capital, Kabul, and most of Afghanistan to the rival Northern Alliance last week.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are urging Afghan tribal leaders to bring Osama bin Laden to them in return for a $25 million reward Washington is offering for his capture. He is believed to be hiding somewhere in southern Afghanistan, possibly near Kandahar.

Some 1,000 al Qaida members are believed to be fighting with the Taliban in Konduz, according to BBC.

The Northern Alliance earlier arranged to send additional 6,000 troops to Konduz should the Taliban refuse to surrender.

The alliance, which has taken back most of Afghanistan from the Taliban after capturing Kabul on Nov. 13, already has thousands of troops surrounding Konduz.

The expected fall of Konduz will further reduce the already shrinking size of the area under Taliban rule. The religious militia, which controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan before the U.S. decision to enter the war, now only holds three small provinces in the southern part of the country.

A Taliban spokesman, Tayyab Agha, told a news conference in the Afghan border town of Spin Buldak Wednesday that the militia intends to defend its last stronghold of Kandahar in the south.

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He said thousands of Taliban fighters had gathered in Kandahar to "fight till death."

The militia made similar claims about Konduz before going to Mazar-i-Sharif to discuss a possible surrender to the Northern Alliance.

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