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Taliban Retreats Southward, Unrest Reported in Kandahar

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a senior operations officer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said rebel groups — the opposition Northern Alliance as well as southern tribes in Afghanistan –were battling Taliban forces in the south, but would not confirm reported advances.

“The Northern Alliance has continued to make gains south of Kabul as well as Herat and at the outskirts of Jalalabad, but this is just a snapshot and the situation remains fluid,” Stufflebeem told reporters.

“Anti-Taliban opposition groups in southern Afghanistan are rebelling against Taliban control, especially near Kandahar. Again, though, this situation is very dynamic,” he added.

Stufflebeem said as many as 23 southern tribes appeared to be battling the Taliban, and he said the Pentagon didn’t know whether they were working individually or in concert.

The U.S. military has received conflicting reports about what territories opposition forces had captured, Stufflebeem said, including whether the Taliban had lost control of Kandahar’s airport.

Regardless, Stufflebeem said the Pentagon was far from declaring an end to the operation in Afghanistan.

“We don’t assume that the job is nearly over with,” he said. “It is too early, we don’t have enough factual information to assume that this war in Afghanistan is about to end.”

U.S. jets continued to pound targets in the south today, with bombs falling south of Jalalabad in areas thought to contain hideouts belonging to bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network, news agencies reported.

For their part, Taliban officials said both supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., were unharmed and still in the country.

The Pentagon said the search for bin Laden and his al-Qaida network would remain a high priority.

To hunt down bin Laden and others in al-Qaida, Stufflebeem said, “the U.S. is prepared, if necessary, to conduct a guerrilla war or a counter-guerrilla war.”

Unrest in Kandahar

Within Kandahar, for years a Taliban stronghold, tribal leaders are said to be in open revolt. One tribal commander yesterday said the Taliban was losing its grip on the key southern city.

“Kandahar is still in the hands of the Taliban,” Sardar Mohammed Akram told The Washington Post, “but many of them are running into the mountains.”

Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah painted a starker portrait, saying the Taliban’s power over the city had all but disappeared.

“There is complete chaos in Kandahar,” he told Iranian television. “It’s absolute confusion. The Taliban have lost control of the situation.”

Earlier today, Northern Alliance Ambassador Said Ibrahim Hikmat told Reuters that Northern Alliance forces entered Kandahar, but there has been no independent verification of those claims.

The Northern Alliance meanwhile moved to tighten its grip on the newly-captured capital of Kabul. Opposition officials took over key government posts, moving back into offices they left when the Taliban forced them from power in 1996.

Officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees said foreign aid has arrived in some areas, but a greater deployment of aid workers would have to wait until the security situation in newly-captured northern cities improves.

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