Fears Taleban retreat is tactical

Gethin Chamberla

TONY Blair yesterday announced British troops could yet be thrown into "offensive front line" action in Afghanistan as US officials issued a warning that it was dangerous to assume the Taleban had collapsed, despite its apparent capitulation.

While the Northern Alliance continued to make advances and capture several key cities, the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar was continuing to hold out amid reports of fierce fighting, while Taleban fighters were allowed to leave the eastern city of Jalalabad with their weapons after striking a deal.

It is unclear how many Taleban troops have defected or been killed. There are few reports of prisoners of war.

Taleban officials claimed there were up to 50,000 in Kandahar and boasted that Osama bin Laden remained safe.

US bombers were targeting the mountain caves around Jalalabad, where it is thought bin Laden could be hiding.

About 5,000 Taleban soldiers are believed to have withdrawn into the southern mountains near the Pakistan border to prepare for a winter campaign.

US Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said of the Taleban: "In previous conflicts against the Soviets many of them fought from and lived in the caves in the south, so it could be that there is a place they can retreat to consider regrouping."

He told a Pentagon briefing: "Itís been predominantly a guerrilla style war done from hidden positions and utilising caves that they may be familiar with, especially if they came from tribes from this part of the world. We still believe we have a hard job in front of us and it may take some time."

The Soviet Union captured Kabul in just two days at the start of the 1979 campaign against the mujahideen. It turned out to be the start of a war which lasted ten years and ended in humiliating retreat.

With the military emphasis in the north switching to consolidating the advances made, the government yesterday placed on standby Royal Marine commandos and members of the Parachute Regiment to join the 4,200 British troops already committed to the region.

They are initially expected to be called on to secure airfields, clear mines and establish corridors for humanitarian aid convoys, but the Prime Minister said some British troops may be called on to join the fighting for a strictly limited period while an international force under the auspices of the UN was formed.

Mr Blair appealed to the countryís Pashtun tribesmen to rise up against the Taleban and over bin laden, the al-Qaeda leader, reminding them that the US had placed a multi-million dollar reward on his head.

In the latest example of contradiction between the British and US administrations, Mr Blair told the House of Commons that the Taleban were in "total collapse".

Mr Blair told MPs: "It is time for the rest of Afghanistan - particularly the ethnic groups in the south - to join the uprising against the Taleban and throw off their oppressive rule. The sooner they act, the greater the benefit. It is clear that support for the Taleban is evaporating."

But he urged the Northern Alliance forces to resist the urge to take revenge.

Mr Blair said: "Regrettable incidents have happened as the liberated people have turned on their oppressors. This should not happen and I appeal to the Northern Alliance and all other forces to be restrained, to avoid acts of revenge and to engage with the UN."

In Kandahar the Islamic militia made announcements over loudspeakers warning that anyone found on the streets after 9pm would be shot.

Supporters say the Talebanís withdrawal from urban areas throughout the country is a strategy that will allow the militia and its allies to wage a guerrilla war from Kandaharís mountains and caves.

Throughout the day Taleban soldiers, some wounded, trickled across the Pakistan border, insisting that the fundamentalist Islamic group was still firmly in charge of Kandahar.

Din Mohammad, bearded and clad in the Taleban turban, said: "There are about 40,000 or 50,000 Taleban in Kandahar. We are making strong defensive positions.

"Many Taleban are going towards Herat and we plan to take it back. We also plan to take back Kabul."

But in the capital, Northern Alliance forces were moving to consolidate their hold on the city, taking over key posts and ministries despite a pledge to support a broad-based government.

Officials portrayed the move as temporary and said they support a UN-supervised political settlement in which all ethnic groups would be represented.

Northern Alliance officials, especially those from the Jamiat-e-Islami faction of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, returned to the government offices they abandoned in 1996 when the Taleban drove them from power.

Diplomats, however, are hoping for an early UN-convened meeting of Taleban groups, including Pashtuns, under the UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi.

Mr Brahimi has a political blueprint for a Taleban regime involving a two-year transitional government to bring the countryís ethnic groups together and a multi-national security force to protect them.

But there appeared no sign of an imminent breakthrough, and the US-led coalition has been criticised for failing to have a plan in place before the Talebanís fall.

The UN sent its first delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan yesterday, 55 tons of winter supplies via a barge across the Amu Darya River that separates the country from Uzbekistan. If the shipment is successful, as much as 17,600 tons of aid a month could be routed through northern Afghanistan.