Besieged Taliban City Heads for Showdown

WASHINGTON/KABUL, Afghanistan -- U.S. special forces hunted for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan on Thursday, as 20,000 of his Arab supporters and Taliban protectors were surrounded in the northern city of Kunduz, facing the prospect of a fight to the death.

Many were reported to be Arab followers of bin Laden who feared they would be killed if they surrendered to the Northern Alliance troops that had cut them off in the city.

"There are 20,000 Taliban in Kunduz, many of them Arabs, and they are trying to break out," said one Northern Alliance official in Dushanbe, the capital of neighboring Tajikistan.

"They are desperate, they've seen what happens to Arabs when the Northern Alliance gets hold of them," he said.

Many foreigners -- including Pakistanis, Chechens and Arabs, spent years fighting for the Taliban. They are widely hated by many Afghans.

The Pentagon said U.S. warplanes killed some al-Qaida and Taliban leaders in two bombing raids on houses in Kabul and Kandahar this week, launched on the basis of intelligence information. But bin Laden was still thought to be alive.

U.S. President George W. Bush achieved one of his war objectives when eight foreign detainees, who had been held by the Taliban for allegedly preaching Christianity, were rescued and taken to Pakistan. Two were U.S. citizens.

Appearing in Crawford, Texas, with President Vladimir Putin, Bush said the United States would now go on to achieve both its other goals -- "Two, destroy terrorist training camps so that country can never be used for terror again ... three, bring Al-Qaida to justice.

"And make no mistake about it, the other two will be met, particularly bringing Al-Qaida to justice," Bush said.

Putin congratulated Bush on the success, saying the U.S. president was a man who did what he said he would do.

Mullah Omar, the reclusive Taliban leader, breathed defiance despite 40 days of withering air strikes.

"The situation in Afghanistan is part of a big plan including the destruction of the United States," Mullah Omar told the BBC Pashtun service.

Pakistan moved troops and tanks to its southwest border with Afghanistan in a swift response to reports bin Laden could try to sneak across the border.

In a move to bolster its ally in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, Washington formally agreed on Thursday to give Pakistan $600 million in aid.

Reports from the Kandahar area and from U.S. officials spoke of anti-Taliban revolts there, and fighting in the city itself. A group of tribal leaders from southern Afghanistan was trying to negotiate some kind of arrangement to avoid bloodshed and warned the Northern Alliance not to try to take the city.

As a small number of U.S. special forces troops operated in southern Afghanistan, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said American warplanes conducted a blistering 136 sorties against Taliban and al-Qaida targets on Wednesday.

Despite reports that the United States might sharply reduce such air strikes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this weekend, Clarke said the raids would go on.