Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar tentatively agreed Thursday to surrender his regime's last stronghold, Kandahar, in a murky pact that would mark the end of the ground war against Afghanistan's former governing militia.
But major questions remained over interpretation of the agreement, notably the fates of the elusive, one-eyed Omar and hundreds of foreign, mostly Arab, fighters holed up in and around Kandahar. Early reports suggested that the agreement would let Omar avoid imprisonment and "live in dignity" in Afghanistan.
The Bush administration issued a stern warning that the United States would challenge any agreement by the Afghan government-in-waiting that granted amnesty to Omar or leaders of the Al Qaeda terror network, which the U.S. blames for the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The deal between Omar and incoming leader Hamid Karzai, a Pushtun tribal chief whose forces are among those arrayed outside Kandahar, "gets rid of the Taliban regime," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said.
"The final collapse of the Taliban is now upon them," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
The pact, which would also result in the surrender of two other southern Afghan provinces held by the Taliban, could pave the way for Karzai's interim government to assume control of all of Afghanistan when it moves into Kabul, the capital, on Dec. 22.
Taliban leaders in the border town of Spin Buldak agreed to surrender early today, tribal sources in Quetta said. The Taliban said it would cede power to Mullah Akhtar Noorzai, who was tribal commander of the town before the Taliban took power there in 1994.
An estimated 2,000 Taliban fighters in the town were to begin turning over their arms today, the sources said.
Also today, Karzai confirmed a report in the Afghan Islamic Press that Taliban fighters in Kandahar were beginning to turn over their weapons.
"I believe they have begun to hand over their weapons from this morning. I hope it will not take more than two or three days," he said.
The surrender deal would also transform the military campaign in Afghanistan into a narrower but perilous subterranean manhunt for Osama bin Laden and remaining Al Qaeda fighters.
That search might be getting close to its mark. The CIA has received several foreign intelligence reports claiming that either a son or a son-in-law of Bin Laden was killed in the past week in attacks on the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the CIA could not confirm the reports but had briefed senior U.S. intelligence and military officials about the possible death of one of Bin Laden's children.
"It's not our people on the ground saying they saw it happen," the official cautioned. He declined to specify the origin of the reports.
The CIA believes that Bin Laden has up to 23 children, including several sons who have joined him and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Some intelligence officials privately have discussed whether U.S. forces should target Bin Laden's sons to prevent them from assuming his terrorist mantle.
"The thinking is, 'Do we want to leave these guys around hungry for revenge?' " said a congressional aide who has participated in the discussions.
The unresolved surrender issues remain so volatile that they could scrap any hope for peace in the birthplace and spiritual headquarters of the radical Islamic movement.
Negotiations were expected to continue today over those issues, along with the Taliban's demand that its members held prisoner elsewhere in the country be granted the same amnesty offered other Afghan Taliban fighters.
Bush administration officials warned that Omar and Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders should not be allowed to negotiate their freedom. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said President Bush "believes very strongly that those who harbor terrorists need to be brought to justice."
In a statement that Pentagon officials said was directed at Karzai, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the United States has made its will clear to the incoming Afghan government.
Rumsfeld Excoriates Taliban's Top Leader
Omar "has been the principal person who has been harboring the Al Qaeda network in that country," Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing. "He does not deserve the Medal of Freedom."
Asked what the United States could do, he hinted at a carrot-and-stick approach: dangling future aid, while threatening to shift its support for Karzai elsewhere among the coalition's volatile array of warlords.
"We obviously have a lot of things we have been doing to assist the opposition forces, and we are continuing to, and the president has indicated plans to be helpful to the country," Rumsfeld said. "And to the extent our goals are frustrated and opposed, obviously we would prefer to work with other people who would not oppose our goals."
Finding another group of allies, or perhaps dividing the existing anti-Taliban coalition, might not prove very difficult. The uneasy alliance reached in Bonn this week to create an Afghan government led by Karzai has left substantial rifts.
But Rumsfeld said he hoped that the United States could come to terms with its Afghan allies.
"I don't think there will be a negotiated end to the situation that's unacceptable to the United States," he said.
Powell launched discussions in Brussels on Thursday with North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies about the new U.N.-mandated multinational force for Afghanistan. By the end of the day, he said he was impressed with the number of countries that had volunteered to participate. The force is to aid the new interim administration and help stabilize a country ravaged by 23 years of war.
But Powell also said the force may not be ready to deploy by Dec. 22. "It's not that far away, and you can't simply beam people in," Powell told a news conference. Several basic issues, including the force's leadership and mix of countries, were still under discussion, he added.
The force is expected to be made up as much as possible by troops from Muslim countries, although NATO members are also expected to contribute. U.S. troops are not likely to be part of the force but may help with logistics, communications or other specialized functions.
Karzai appeared to allow room for amnesty for Omar, if not the estimated 600 non-Afghan fighters who accompany the Taliban leader. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., Karzai pledged that there would be a general amnesty for all fighters willing to lay down their arms.
Asked if that applied to Omar, Karzai said it would apply only if Omar "condemns terrorism and terrorist actions all over the world. . . . If he's ready to condemn terrorists and terrorism, I'm ready to save his life. If he doesn't, I'm sorry. He will face the consequences."
Of the non-Afghan fighters, Karzai said: "They are our enemies. They destroyed our country. If we are able to arrest them, then they will face justice according to international law."
The tentative pact calls for Omar to hand over Kandahar, along with the two neighboring provinces, to a former moujahedeen commander from Kandahar, Mullah Naquibullah. The commander would become interim governor in Kandahar, Karzai's brother and spokesman, Ahmed, said in Quetta, Pakistan. Naquibullah peacefully handed over Kandahar when the Taliban took over in 1994, and he is considered sympathetic to the movement.
'Taliban Leadership Will Be Safe,' Ex-Envoy Says
"This was a decision for the welfare of the people," Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, told reporters in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Zaeef said it was his understanding that "the Taliban leadership will be safe."
The fall of Kandahar would still leave a volatile manhunt. And roads linking the Afghan capital with many of its major cities are considered virtually impassible because of bandits and Taliban fighters who have not been routed by U.S. bombing or the ground campaign by anti-Taliban forces.
The continuing dangers were underscored this week by the deaths of three U.S. soldiers. The bodies of two of the Green Berets killed Wednesday by accidental "friendly fire" were flown to a U.S. air base in Germany on Thursday.
U.S. forces have expanded their aid to opposition fighters seeking to eliminate hidden pockets of pro-Taliban fighters throughout Afghanistan. After days of bombing cave and tunnel networks believed to hide Bin Laden in the snow-capped Tora Bora region near the eastern city of Jalalabad, U.S. warplanes began supporting thousands of cave-searching opposition fighters by hammering Bin Laden's holdouts with close ground fire, said Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Afghan soldiers said they had seized a lower level of caves stocked with guns, ammunition and heavy artillery. But the soldiers came under fire from Al Qaeda squads. At least six were killed.
As many as 2,000 Al Qaeda fighters are believed to be making their last stand in the caves and trenches at Tora Bora, where Afghan commanders have reported that Bin Laden lieutenant and fellow Al Qaeda founder Ayman Zawahiri was killed. That report is still unconfirmed.
At the base of the camp, opposition fighters said they seized more than 40 pickup trucks Thursday that had belonged to Al Qaeda. In nearby caves, they discovered hundreds of crates of guns and ammunition, and pieces of heavy artillery.
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Murphy reported from Quetta and Hendren from Washington. Times staff writers Tyler Marshall in Islamabad, Megan K. Stack in Jalalabad, Bob Drogin in Washington and Robin Wright in Brussels contributed to this report.