Last Stand Looms in Kandahar

BONN, Germany/NEAR KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Afghan factions haggled in Bonn on Monday over who should sit in a new interim government as Afghanistan's former rulers threatened to mount a bloody last stand in besieged Kandahar.

U.S. bombers pounded Taliban positions near the southern Afghan city and ethnic Pashtun forces fought fierce battles against the Islamist fighters to the south of its airport.

Warplanes bombarded a suspected mountain hideout of Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, killing 58 people, the Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported.

Among the ranks of the Taliban trapped in Kandahar are hundreds of Arabs and Chechens loyal to bin Laden who face little future in defeat and are unlikely to surrender. A top defector from the Taliban said the movement's Afghan spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, would also fight to the death.

"One point is clear. He knows that with or without a fight the Americans will kill him for sure," said Haji Mullah Khaksar, the Taliban's former deputy interior minister.

"He would reason that if the Americans are going to kill him or if he is going to die in jail, why shouldn't he die in war?" he said. "It is ... in his character to fight to the death."

The conquest of Kandahar, the last remaining Taliban stronghold, might require savage street-by-street fighting, and if U.S. troops take part they would run the risk of their heaviest battlefield casualties for decades.

At a southern Afghan airstrip within striking distance of Kandahar held by U.S. Marines, cargo aircraft flew in more light-armored vehicles and all-terrain Humvee vehicles to be used by "hunter-killer" teams.

The Marines have seen little combat since seizing the airstrip as a bridgehead a week ago, instead ferrying in arms and supplies for what could be the decisive battle to come.

U.S. bombers, however, continued to mount heavy raids from bases outside Afghanistan, as they have done since Oct. 7.

The U.S. Central Command, responding to reports that bombing had killed more civilians in recent days, said it had struck only at military targets of the Taliban and bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

In northern Afghanistan, a heavily bearded 20-year-old American said he had fought for the Taliban and survived a bloody prison uprising near Mazar-i-Sharif last week.

"I was a student in Pakistan, studying Islam and came into contact with many people connected with Taliban," the wounded John Walker told CNN.

"The people in general have a great love for the Taliban so I started to read some of the literature of the scholars, the history of Kabul ... my heart became attached to that."

After talking late into the night, bleary-eyed Afghan negotiators rose before dawn in Bonn on Monday for a seventh day of negotiating a post-Taliban government.

The four Afghan factions represented at the United Nations-sponsored talks in a top-security hotel have agreed the broad outlines of an interim government but still face the toughest task of agreeing on who will occupy the 29 seats in a new Cabinet.

An adviser to the group backing the former king, Zahir Shah, said they would propose that the ex-monarch's close aide, Abdul Sattar Sirat, head the interim administration. An adviser to the Northern Alliance said his delegation had backed the choice.

The new government could sideline Northern Alliance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is still recognized by the UN as Afghan president. Western diplomats, always in the wings to remind the Afghans that billions of dollars in reconstruction aid rest on a deal, said haggling over posts could take several more days.