Northern Alliance takes Kabul-Capitol

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As Taliban Crumbles, Political Blueprint Sought

By Sayed Salahuddin and Peter Millership

KABUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The hardline Islamic rule of Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s Taliban unraveled Wednesday, as diplomats scrambled to establish a new government and restore stability to a weary nation wounded by two decades of civil war.

The Taliban's civil war foe, the Northern Alliance, has refrained so far from the orgy of reprisal killings and bloody power battles among its disparate factions that accompanied its last takeover in the early 1990s.

But with diplomats galloping to keep up with field commanders, alliance leaders came under growing international pressure to strike an early deal on a broad-based government, including the Pashtun tribe from which the Taliban draws support.

On day 39 of the U.S. bombing campaign to punish the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden (news - web sites), blamed for the September 11 suicide-hijack attacks in the United States, the Saudi-born militant remained free in Afghanistan's harsh terrain and U.S. and special forces headed south to hunt him down.

He and his chief protector, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, could be heading with their supporters to Afghanistan's arid mountains to fight a guerrilla war, with the Taliban already in retreat from most cities, defense analysts said.

CHAOS IN KANDAHAR

The Taliban have lost control of their southern stronghold of Kandahar and the city is ``total chaos,'' Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told Iran's state television Wednesday.

``There is complete chaos in Kandahar. It's absolute confusion. The Taliban have lost control of the situation and no Taliban officials are to be found,'' Abdullah said, without saying what presence, if any, his fighters had in the old royal capital.

There was no independent confirmation of who controlled what in the Taliban heartland in the south.

An anti-Taliban group seized control Wednesday of the eastern city of Jalalabad, whose outskirts housed training camps for bin Laden's al Qaeda and Pakistanis fighting Indian rule in Kashmir (news - web sites), Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said.

Four northeastern provinces also slipped from Taliban hands after local uprisings, officials and tribal leaders said.

``Now the Taliban have less than 20 percent of the territory of Afghanistan,'' opposition Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunis Qanuni told Reuters.

World leaders were trying to cobble together a multinational peacekeeping force for Afghanistan and plans for a transitional government for a country racked by civil war since the former Soviet Union invaded on Christmas Day, 1979, to back communist rule in the Muslim country.

British troops could be sent to Afghanistan within days to maintain security as part of a ``stability force...to allow the right conditions for a new regime in the country, a Ministry of Defense spokesman said Wednesday.

Having twice tried to invade it in the 19th century, the British army has an unhappy history in a country nestled between Iran and the Indian subcontinent and which straddles an ancient trading route.

DIPLOMATIC FLURRY IN PAKISTAN

Diplomats were converging on Pakistan to hammer out a post-Taliban administration in neighboring Afghanistan.

U.N. envoy to Afghanistan Fransesc Vendrell was in Islamabad, waiting to go to Kabul to meet Northern Alliance leaders as soon as U.N. security officials give him clearance that it is safe.

He is expected to push a U.N. plan envisaging a two-year interim government bringing all ethnic groups under one umbrella with a multinational security force to protect them.

James Dobbins, the U.S. envoy to the Northern Alliance, was due in the Pakistani capital after talks in Rome with exiled King Zahir Shah, a potential figurehead in an interim government.

Iranian Interior Minister Abdovahed Mousavi-Lari was also in Islamabad meeting Pakistan officials on Afghanistan's future -- a subject of previous disagreement because they had backed opposite sides in the civil war. That changed after Pakistan stopped supporting the Taliban after the September 11 attacks.

The United Nations (news - web sites) dispatched the first shipment of aid on Wednesday to northern Afghanistan from ex-Soviet Uzbekistan, officials said.

Aid agencies warn of a humanitarian disaster in the making with harsh winter looming and 3.4 million people, half the population of northern Afghanistan, depending on aid to survive.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said three of its expatriate staff had reached Kabul, the first to return since the Taliban asked all foreigners to leave in September.

SOUND OF MUSIC

In Kabul, the dawn call to prayers competed with the sound of music for the first time in five years as residents awoke to life after the Taliban -- and uncertainty about what happens next.

Factions in the northern Alliance split the city along ethnic lines within hours of their entry -- a sign Kabul could revert to the patchwork divisions that sparked bloody power struggles when the same groups took over from the Soviet-installed government.

But most people seemed pleased. ''Everything is different today, it's 100 percent changed,'' said 35-year-old tire seller Sarfraz Hostai. ``We had so many problems before, but now we are free and we are waiting for our new government.''

Less than a week ago, the Taliban controlled 90 percent of the country and the Northern Alliance a tiny corner in the north.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday American special forces were in southern Afghanistan and Kabul, besides teams helping target the Taliban in the north.

The Taliban said the retreat from major cities was a tactical withdrawal aimed at sparing civilian lives. They took with them eight Western aid workers -- two Americans, two Australians and four Germans -- accused of preaching Christianity.

Opposition tribal leader Hamid Karzai, speaking by satellite telephone from central Afghanistan, told Reuters the Taliban were preparing the defense of their spiritual capital Kandahar.

``The latest message I have received is that the Taliban forces ... have established a defensive circle around greater Kandahar,'' he said.

ALLIANCE LEADER IN KABUL

Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who as Afghan president was driven from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996, said he would return to the capital Wednesday.

The United Nations never recognized Taliban rule, recognizing Rabbani's administration as the legitimate government of Afghanistan instead.

The U.N. Security Council is considering a British and French drafted resolution Wednesday that would support a political blueprint drafted by Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (news - web sites)'s special envoy for Afghanistan.

Brahimi has suggested a ``coalition of the willing'' contribute multinational troops, which diplomats said could include Turkey, Jordan and Malaysia, along with European nations.

As Taliban rule crumbled, Mullah Omar urged his scattered fighters to stand and fight.

``Any person who goes hither and thither is like a slaughtered chicken which falls and dies. You should regroup yourselves, resist and fight,'' the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted him as saying in a wireless address in Pashto Tuesday. An anti-Taliban revolt in the Taliban's southern power base would boost prospects of the United States hunting down bin laden, its most wanted man, one veteran Afghan watcher said.

``The chances of him being betrayed, sold out or whatever are extremely high,'' Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid told Reuters from the Pakistani city of Lahore. ``There is tremendous ferment across the south now.''
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