Taliban Begin Handing Over Weapons in Kandahar

Taliban forces began handing over their weapons at the militia's last major bastion of Kandahar Friday as part of a surrender deal with opposition tribal forces, according to a report from the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.

The news service quoted Taliban leaders in Kandahar as saying they had ordered their fighters to give their weapons to a commission made up of Muslim clerics, local tribal elders and some opposition commanders.

Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, a former senior Taliban official who has defected, said Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban leaders had fled the city, the birthplace of the militia. It was not known where they went, said Khaqzar, who communicates regularly with anti-Taliban tribal leaders.

"I was in radio contact with Kandahar and they have started handing over their weapons," he said.

The deal and apparent subsequent surrender marked the final collapse of the militant movement that imposed strict Islamic rule on Afghanistan for five years.

"Mullah Omar has taken the decision for the welfare of the people, to avoid casualties and to save the life and dignity of Afghans," said Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, explaining the cleric's decision to surrender. He said a former guerrilla leader from the war against the Soviets, Mullah Naqib Ullah, would take control of Kandahar within days.

The reports of the surrenders made no mention of any resistance by Taliban fighters. Instead it reported some Taliban personnel as saying that they were following the orders of Omar — a radical turnaround for a leader who once vowed to fight to the death.

Low-ranking Taliban fighters were leaving for their homes after being granted a general amnesty, Khaqzar said. He said Arab fighters who had been defending the city's airport against an opposition assault would probably also flee west to mountains in Helmand province or east to Zabul province and then try to escape into Pakistan.

Similar surrenders were also taking place in nearby Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand province, the Afghan Islamic Press reported, as well as in several other centers in the region.

The agency said the surrenders started early Friday morning following weeks of intense U.S. bombing and major advances by opposition forces. There were no reports of bombing in southern Afghanistan as the surrenders took place.

There were unconfirmed reports of looting and gunfire in Kandahar as its citizens realized that the reign of the Taliban had ended. Western reporters previously had been barred from the city by the Taliban.

Witnesses contacted by The Associated Press said a surrender had also been completed peacefully in the city of Spinboldak, near the Pakistan border.

In Washington, Haron Amin, a spokesman for the opposition Northern Alliance, said he was unaware of the report that a surrender was in progress. In Florida, Maj. Ralph Mills at U.S. Central Command declined to comment.

The reports come a day after the Taliban agreed to surrender Kandahar if their warriors were not punished and if safety was guaranteed to Omar.

The murky surrender pact made no mention of Usama bin Laden and left unclear the fate of hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreign fighters in bin Laden's Al Qaeda terror network. It also sowed confusion about what would become of Omar.

Top opposition leader Hamid Karzai, who will lead the country's interim administration, said he would guarantee Omar's safety if the Taliban leader denounced terrorism. He also said he would grant a general amnesty to Afghan Taliban fighters who surrender.

Zaeef said the surrender called for Omar to live in Kandahar under the protection of the new local administration. But Karzai sought to avoid specifics, telling The Associated Press that such issues "are the details that we still have to work out." He refused to say whether Omar would face arrest.

The United States, however, said it would not accept any deal allowing the cleric to go free. Washington has accused Omar of protecting bin Laden and the Al Qaeda group, who are blamed for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

After briefing members of the Senate on the situation in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked whether the United States would insist on U.S. justice or would agree to let an international tribunal deal with Omar.

"We would prefer to have Omar," Rumsfeld replied. He said there was "still a good deal of confusion" surrounding the surrender.

Karzai, however, said the United States had not been consulted.

"This is an Afghan question," he told the BBC.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.