Los Angeles Times

CHAMAN, Pakistan Signs that Northern alliance troops have begun to press toward the Taliban”s sole remaining stronghold in Afghanistan, the southern city of Kandahar, focused new attention yesterday on the U.S. goal of bringing stability to that ethnically divided country.

Despite mounting pressure from anti-Taliban and U.S. forces in the area, leaders of the moribund regime continued to urge supporters to hold out.

“Until the situation in Kandahar is resolved, don”t hand over your weapons or give up a single man,” Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was quoted as saying by a local Taliban official in the southern town of Spin Boldak, near the border with Pakistan.

What raised questions for U.S. policy-makers, however, was not the defiance of the Taliban, but the possibility of ethnic and tribal confrontations if the northern alliance advances too far into the southern heartland of Afghanistan”s Pashtun majority.

In Washington, Pentagon officials expressed skepticism that alliance forces had reached the city of Kandahar itself.

“That could indicate the Kandahar province,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a Pentagon briefing. “We can”t deny that but I could not confirm, and I”ve not seen any reports that any opposition groups have entered Kandahar city at this point.”

Stufflebeem acknowledged that the Pashtun leaders whose forces have “ringed” Kandahar may well have concerns about any northern alliance surge southward toward the city but said the United States cannot dictate the fight on the ground by opposition forces.

Nonetheless, the developments appeared to point up the inherent tension between Washington”s clear-cut focus on terrorism and the blurred political and historical realities of Afghanistan.

On other fronts yesterday, there was some dispute as to the current location of an influential al-Qaida operative from Egypt whose recent capture by anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan was disclosed yesterday.

Family members in Cairo, Egypt, told the Al Hayat newspaper that Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman, son of a blind sheik who is serving a life sentence in the United States for plotting to blow up New York landmarks, had been handed over to U.S. officials in Afghanistan after his arrest.

But U.S. intelligence officials in Washington reiterated yesterday that Rahman is not in American custody.

Mountaser Zayyat, a Cairo attorney who represents Gamaa al Islamiya, the extremist group once headed by the blind sheik, said he believed that the northern alliance had taken Rahman to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif by the Northern Alliance.

Zayyat said in a telephone interview that the sheik”s eldest son, Mohammed, had called the family from Kandahar to confirm his brother”s arrest on about Nov. 8. He said his brother had been captured as he tried to flee Kabul.

Rahman had lived in Afghanistan for about 10 years and had become part of Osama bin Laden”s inner circle, according to U.S. officials. They said he and his brother used their incarcerated father”s apparent appeal to help al-Qaida recruit terrorists.

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