Official: Taliban Withdraw in Province

Taliban fighters have peacefully withdrawn from an Afghan province near the border with Iran, but they retain control of their southern stronghold of Kandahar, an Afghan tribal representative said Monday. 

A group of ethnic Pashtun tribal elders who opposed the Islamic militia persuaded the Taliban to pull out of western Farah province over the weekend, said spokesman Mohammed Yusuf Pashtun.

The report could not be independently confirmed. If true, it would signal progress for Pashtun leaders who have been trying to remove the Taliban from the remaining areas of Afghanistan under their control.

``We have taken over from the Taliban in a peaceful manner'' in Farah, said Pashtun, a spokesman for a tribal faction led by Gul Agha Shirzai.

``The Taliban will feel much weaker and they'll be more convinced to give up their power peacefully'' in Kandahar, he said. However, he acknowledged that there were ``hardcore'' Taliban who were committed to fighting.

He spoke in the Pakistani city of Quetta, where many Afghan tribal leaders who routinely move back and forth over the border have been debating how to remove the Taliban. Weeks of U.S. bombing and advances by northern alliance troops have forced the Taliban, who are dominated by Pashtuns, to withdraw from about two-thirds of Afghanistan.

The tribal leaders are a divided group, with some advocating negotiations with Taliban leaders who are considered moderate and others less willing to do so.

Pashtun said forces inside Afghanistan who are affiliated with Shirzai are growing in strength, although they are reluctant to take up arms against the Taliban for now.

``We are keeping this as a deterrent force, not as a force that must be used,'' he said.

Another Pashtun leader, Hamid Karzai, remained in southern Afghanistan, where he was trying to use both persuasion and the threat of military force to exert pressure on the Taliban to give up their struggle.

Pashtun said a group of tribal chiefs had met the Taliban governor of Kandahar and two other Taliban leaders on Thursday on the eastern edge of the city, which has come under fierce bombing.

The Taliban said they would consult amongst themselves before responding to the appeal of the tribal chiefs, Pashtun said. He had not received information on a followup meeting that was supposed to have taken place on Saturday.