ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Mullah Mohammed Omar, supreme leader of the Taliban militia, has agreed to leave his headquarters at Kandahar within 24 hours and turn over the city to two local Pashtun leaders, the Afghan Islamic Press said Friday.
At the Pentagon, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said he didn't put much stock in the report, which could not be independently confirmed.
"I don't believe it," Stufflebeem told a news conference. "I think that our forces who are there are still operating under the assumption that it is a hostile environment. I think the opposition groups are operating in the same way."
Omar agreed to leave the southern city and head for the mountains following discussions with "close friends and army commanders," the Pakistan-based agency said.
Control of the city will pass to Mullah Naqibullah and Haji Basher, two former commanders of Afghan resistance forces in the war against the Soviets. Neither is a member of the Taliban.
Bashar is close to Yunus Khalis, a Pashtun leader who took over Jalalabad this week. Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and served as the backbone of the Taliban's harsh five-year regime.
Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun leader who has been trying to organize a Pashtun uprising in the south, said Omar and other Taliban leaders have no place to go if they leave Kandahar.
"They will find it very hard to find an escape route," said Karzai. "We have offered them amnesty, of course. If they do not fight and lay down their arms, they will be saved," he said.
The report of Omar's plan to leave came as U.S. warplanes pounded targets near the Taliban's two principal remaining strongholds — Kandahar in the south and Kunduz in the north.
Kandahar, the Taliban's home base, and Kunduz are all that the Taliban have left after being driven from Afghanistan's main urban areas, including the capital, Kabul.
"The Taliban still have a strong hold on Kandahar. They are digging in," said a spokesman for Pashtun tribal leaders organized as an anti-Taliban force, who requested anonymity.
He estimated that 70 percent of Taliban commanders have chosen to follow Omar's call to keep fighting, while 30 percent don't want to fight.
U.S. planes continued strikes on Kandahar on the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
"We are bombing today," Defense Department Spokesman Dick McGraw said, adding that there was "no change in operations as a result of Ramadan."
During five years of Taliban rule, Ramadan was a time of particularly harsh repression as Taliban religious police roamed the streets beating those who defied their edicts.
The Taliban have been harboring Usama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, and his Al Qaeda terror network.
U.S. planes bombed Kandahar again overnight, continuing a pattern of relentless strikes on the city and its environs. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said the Taliban's foreign ministry was wrecked, along with a mosque located in the eastern part of the city.
Refugees arriving in Pakistan said Taliban troops still appeared in control of the city and the airport.
At Kunduz in the north, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was laying siege to the city, backed by U.S. airstrikes. There, too, though, Taliban control appeared to be holding.
The defenders include an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 foreigners loyal to bin Laden -- who are much less likely than Afghan Taliban to simply negotiate a surrender or slip away, as the bulk of Taliban forces did in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and in Kabul.
In the afternoon, U.S. warplanes again hit Taliban positions outside Kunduz.
Near the city of Herat, by the Iranian border, Taliban forces vacated an air base, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.