Afghans flee Kandahar bombing

Refugees pour over the Pakistan border into Chaman, many bringing their dead with them.

When American bombs fell near his home in Kandahar last night, Abdullah finally had no choice but to pack his bags and leave with his family for Pakistan. But his support for the Taliban remains undimmed.

"Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban," he says with a touch of pride, crossing the busy checkpoint from Afghanistan into Pakistan. "The people are not happy with the war, but the Taliban are good. They are the only government in the world that is making a truly Islamic country."

As the aerial and ground assault intensifies on Kandahar, the Taliban's last major stronghold in Afghanistan, there are clear signs that the Taliban's grip on power is continuing to slip. But the all-but-inevitable defeat of the Taliban is bringing with it a heavy toll on Afghan civilians. Thousands of Afghan refugees, dozens of war wounded, arrive at the dusty Chaman border crossing, hoping to leave the war and their destroyed country behind them.

While there are no signs of a major uprising against the Taliban rulers who have dominated Afghanis-tan's government for the past five years - indeed, public support for the Taliban remains strong here - citizens and Taliban alike admit that the end appears to be quite near.

"All is in the hands of God," says Abdul Haq, a Taliban border guard, who crossed over into Pakistan on a pickup truck carrying two dead Taliban soldiers for burial in Pakistan. "We are trying our best to push them back, but we are not feeling pain from our losses. We are martyrs. We are happy. We don't consider such minor things like life and death."

The American and British bombing attack on Kandahar appears to be weakening the Taliban's effective ability to control the outer defenses of the city. This week, the Taliban lost two key villages north of Kandahar to the forces of Hamid Karzai, the man named at talks in Bonn to head a post-Taliban government. The villages were vital supply-and-escape routes.

To the south, the Kandahar airport is also coming under heavy attack, with Taliban forces pulling back. And at an airstrip 55 miles south of Kandahar, US forces continue to provide logistical support to anti-Taliban forces and said they were ready to join the fight as necessary.

On Wednesday, American planes were blamed with what may be the deadliest "friendly fire" incident of the war, as B-52 bombers dropped bombs on a unit of American special forces, killing two and injuring about a dozen more. A Pentagon report also said Mr. Karzai was slightly injured in the bombing.

Bombs were also blamed in the deaths of the wife and children of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the second in command for Osama Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network, according to an exiled Egyptian Islamist in London yesterday quoted by Reuters. Hany Seba'i said Mr. Zawahiri was unhurt.

Along with the continuing ground and air assault on Kandahar, the home of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, Afghan militias aimed tank fire at a cave-and-tunnel complex in Eastern Afghanistan thought to be occupied by Mr. bin Laden. The cave complex, in a mountainous district called Tora Bora, about 40 miles south of Jalalabad, is heavily defended, and local Afghans say at least 1,000 Arab fighters and their families are living there.

Anti-Taliban commander Hazrat Ali said his men were holding back from a final assault against Tora Bora for fear of being bombed by allied US warplanes, which were pounding the same targets, Reuters reported.

But here in Chaman, Afghan refugees can only think of their own losses.

"There are a lot of casualties, they are martyrs, and they are mostly civilians," says Abdul Sattar, a seminary student who left Kandahar eight days ago due to bombing. "I don't know about Hamid Karzai and I don't know about Gul Agha," he says, referring to the two main anti-Taliban warlords besieging Kandahar. "There is no Hamid Karzai and no Gul Agha in Kandahar, the city is totally under the control of the Taliban."

It is difficult to gauge just how many troops the Taliban have left in Kandahar, but some experts put the number between 10,000 and 15,000 well-armed troops. American and British bombing has certainly weakened Taliban defenses over the past week, and relief officials in Chaman report a growing number of Afghan corpses are coming across the border each day.

"Last night we had eight dead people coming across the border, who died in a bomb blast," says Abdul Salam, an ambulance driver for the Edhi charitable foundation "They were soldiers of the Taliban. This is a daily routine," he adds, without emotion. "We are receiving five or six bodies each day, half of them military and half civilians."

Mohammad Naeem left Kandahar seven days ago, after burying his wife and two of his children, ages 6 and 7. He has just arrived in Chaman today, after waiting in a no-man's land between Afghanistan and Pakistan with thousands of other unregistered Afghan refugees. While he says Kandahar remains under firm Taliban control, he says he has no other thoughts about the future of Afghanistan, just for the survival of his family.

"How can I feel about this situation?" he says, unloading his belongings from a donkey cart and putting them into a tent in a camp run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. "I lost my wife and children. Now I have seven children to look after by myself."

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