President Returns to Kabul After 5 Years

KABUL, Afghanistan8212;In a convoy of vehicles with his picture plastered on the windshields, the Afghan president ousted five years ago by the Taliban returned Saturday to the capital to reclaim his post. His return raised worries over the effort to build a broad-based, post Taliban government.

The Taliban envoy to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, meanwhile, said Osama bin Laden had left Afghanistan, but U.S. officials were skeptical of the claim. The envoy later gave a different version, saying bin Laden had left the rapidly shrinking portion of Afghanistan still under Taliban control.

The Taliban also confirmed that bin Laden’s military chief, Mohammed Atef, was killed in a U.S. bombing raid three days ago.

Also Saturday, a reported deal with local leaders for the Taliban to leave their main bastion, Kandahar, fell through because some Taliban commanders did not want to abandon the southern city. In the north, U.S jets struck around Kunduz, the only other city still held by the Taliban.

As the Taliban struggled to maintain a hold around Kandahar, the deposed president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, entered Kabul four days after his Jamiat-e Islami fighters8212;the biggest faction in the alliance8212;captured the city.

Rabbani, who was last in Kabul when he was ousted by the Taliban in 1996, arrived in a jeep with blackened windows, part of a convoy of 15 vehicles that included representatives of other factions in the northern alliance. The vehicles were festooned with pictures of Rabbani and slain alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massood, who was mortally injured in September by a suicide bomber.

Rabbani has never relinquished his claim to the presidency, though he has acknowledged the international calls for a broad based government that would include all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups.

The alliance is made up largely of Tajiks like Rabbani, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities. The country’s largest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, who served as the backbone of the Taliban’s harsh five-year regime.

On Saturday, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reiterated the importance of creating a broad based government accepted by all of Afghanistan’s diverse political and ethnic groups.

“If they do not do that, and one group tries to control power and assert itself, it is going to be a problem down the line,” he said in Ottawa after meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. “And I would hope that Mr. Rabbani also is aware of this happening since he knows intimately the history of his own country.”

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that the United States has been pressuring the northern alliance to share power with other factions and to let the U.N. oversee assembly of a new government. U.S. officials are in the region and in direct contact with the alliance, he said.

Rabbani’s foreign minister, Abdullah, told a news conference Saturday that the northern alliance remained committed to forming a multiethnic government, including Pashtuns, “the sooner the better.”

But it appeared that Rabbani’s followers intended to enter such negotiations from a position of strength as the de facto rulers of this country. Rabbani invited all Afghan groups except the Taliban to a meeting to discuss formation of a new government, but insisted that it be held in Kabul.