Taliban ‘Find Collapse’ Now Here, Blair Says

KABUL, Afghanistan?The Taliban agreed Thursday to surrender Kandahar, their last bastion and birthplace, if their warriors were not punished and safety was guaranteed to leader Mullah Mohammed Omar who once vowed to fight to the death. America said it would not accept any deal allowing the cleric to go free.

The promise to give up the city and begin handing over weapons as early as Friday marked the final collapse of the militant movement that imposed strict Islamic rule on Afghanistan for five years.

Personal rivalries among anti-Taliban leaders and the fate of Omar still could wreck the fragile agreement. The head of the new Afghan transition government, Hamid Karzai, refused to say whether Omar would be arrested as Washington has demanded.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States would not stand for any agreement that lets the Taliban leader go free and “live in dignity.”

Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said radio intercepts had picked up no communications by Omar in three days and that he appeared to have lost contact with senior Taliban commanders.

“It seems that the final collapse of the Taliban is now upon us,” said British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Bush’s closest ally in the war. “That is a total vindication of the strategy that we have worked out from the beginning.”

The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan seemed to agree. When asked about the future of the movement, Salam Zaeef said, “I think we should go home.”

The murky surrender pact made no mention of Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and left unclear the fate of hundreds of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and other foreign fighters of his al Qaeda terrorist network.

After briefing members of the Senate on the situation in Afghanistan, 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’s 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.

In eastern Afghanistan, meanwhile, B-52s hammered suspected mountain hide-outs of bin Laden and his fighters. About 1,500 anti-Taliban forces have been attacking the region around the Tora Bora compound for two days.

In Washington, U.S. officials said al Qaeda fighters are believed operating from five to 10 cave complexes at Tora Bora in the White Mountains south of Jalalabad. Officials suspect bin Laden is in that area but also are on alert for his presence in the south around Kandahar.

Southwest of that city, U.S. Marines went on alert and fired mortars and flares into the desert from their base after detecting what a spokesman said “appears to be a credible threat.”

A UHN-1 Huey helicopter crashed near the airstrip at Camp Rhino, and Marine spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton said two servicemen received minor injuries, one of them on the ground. The cause of the crash was under investigation, but Upton said, “We are 99 percent sure that the helicopter did not crash because of enemy fire.”