Bonn talks tougher on day two as US troops fly in
Thursday November 29, 2:51 AM
Anti-Taliban Afghan factions got down to tough talking on a power-sharing plan on the second day of a historic conference in Bonn, as US troops consolidated their bridgehead in southern Afghanistan.
UN officials at the talks Wednesday played down chances of a quick breakthrough, and the dominant Northern Alliance faction continued to oppose the deployment of international peacekeepers, although there were signs its stance was softening.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced that 750 US Marines had arrived at a desert airstrip to set up a forward base within striking distance of the Taliban's last major stronghold in the southern city of Kandahar.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said: "They will continue to go in."
After an upbeat start to the talks Tuesday at a hill-top hotel outside Bonn, some 30 anti-Taliban Afghan delegates from four separate groups Wednesday began what delegates and UN officials warned would be a tough round of negotiations.
"An entire, full agreement on every single issue may not be possible in this meeting," the UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, told a press conference.
He said one of the major difficulties was the proposal for a UN-mandated multinational security force.
"Quite honestly it will need a lot of work. You should not expect an immediate agreement," he admitted.
But he added: "We think a multinational force is highly desirable."
The Alliance, which seized Kabul on November 13, said it might be flexible on the peacekeepers and on giving a political role to exiled former king Mohammed Zahir Shah, but not before a broad agreement was reached.
Yunus Qanooni, head of the Alliance delegation in Bonn said: "At the moment there is no need for (an international force) ... although it can in principle be part of a comprehensive peace package."
But he added: "We don't feel the need for an outside force to bring security."
On the role of the former king, who has been touted as a possible unifying figure, Qanooni was also cautious, insisting that a decision on this would not be made in Bonn, but only after a full meeting of Afghan tribal elders.
"We don't believe in the role of personalities, we believe in systems," he told reporters. "But if it were decided in the Loya Jirga (tribal council) that the king should have a role then nobody can deny it."
The Northern Alliance, a loose coalition of factions mainly drawn from the Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara minorities, is wary of the party gathered under Zahir Shah's symbolic leadership, which represents the Pashtun tribes of the south.
The other two delegations at the talks -- the so-called Cyprus and Peshawar groups -- represent exiled leaders backed by Iran and Pakistan respectively.
As the parties hammered out the structure of a interim government for Afghanistan, European and Arab leaders warned the United States not to rush to make Iraq the next target of its self-declared "war on terrorism".
On Monday US President George W. Bush warned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to allow UN weapons inspectors back into his country, hinting at possible action if he refuses.
But on Wednesday German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French Defence Minister Alain Richard and Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa all warned Bush not to risk damaging his fragile anti-terror coalition.
The US-led coalition has backed US military action on Afghanistan, whose ousted Taliban regime has protected Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of Islamic radicals, but many members oppose widening the campaign's scope.
"There is no other nation whose leaders have been active accomplices of terrorist actions," Richard said in Sofia. "So we do not believe that it is today necessary to take military action against other sites."
In a speech before parliament in Berlin, Schroeder also warned against taking the war on terrorism to countries beyond Afghanistan.
Bush and other US officials, including Sectretary of State Colin Powell have deliberately fed speculation that Iraq might soon find itself under attack.
And Turkey, a key US ally whose airbases are used by US and British planes patrolling Iraqi airspace, hinted Wednesday that it might drop its objection to an attack against its southeastern neighbour.
"We have repeatedly said that we do not desire a new operation in Iraq, but new conditions could bring about new assessments," Defence Minister Sabahattin Cakmakoglu told reporters, the Anatolia news agency said.
US forces have stepped up their hunt for bin Laden since the collapsing Taliban regime retreated to its last bastion in Kandahar, deploying the first elements of a Marine expeditionary force southwest of the city.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that US war planes had Tuesday bombed a compound housing important al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders.
But Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban envoy to Pakistan, said the site attacked was just the home of a local official.
US officials said they had narrowed their hunt for bin Laden to the Kandahar region and an area between Kabul and the Khyber pass to the east, including Jalalabad.
After hearing warnings Tuesday from their German and UN hosts that the world stands ready to help on condition they abandon their old warlike ways, the Afghan delegates in Bonn said they expected to strike a deal, hopefully by the end of the week, on a broad-based temporary government in Afghanistan.
According to a UN blueprint, the conference would form an "Interim Supreme Council of Afghanistan", a cabinet-style body to run the country for three to six months.
It would also create an "Interim Administration of Afghanistan", a kind of parliament, and an "emergency Loya Jirga", or grand council of elders, to decide on a new constitution, a UN spokesman said Tuesday.
This process should be complete by April 2002, he said.
In northern Afghanistan, Alliance commanders said their troops, backed by US and British special forces, finally put down on Wednesday a bloody rebellion by hundreds of non-Afghan Taliban prisoners of war at a fort near Mazar-i-Sharif.
Alliance soldiers were in complete control of the sprawling fortress of Qala-e-Jangi after wiping out the last pockets of resistance, an AFP journalist at the scene said.
"We have subdued the last of those who were resisting this morning," said General Abdul Atif, one of the commanders who led the assault. "In total we killed 450. None wanted to surrender."
The dead, he added, were Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs and Uzbeks, many believed to have been recruited through al-Qaeda.
A Red Cross official in Kabul said his organisation had begun collecting the bodies for identification and burial, but could not confirm casualty figures.
The POWs had surrendered to Alliance troops last weekend in Kunduz, the last Taliban stronghold in the north, and were transferred to Qala-e-Jangi, 10 kilometers (six miles) west of nearby Mazar-i-Sharif.
They rebelled on Sunday, taking over much of the prison, seizing stocks of weapons and ammunition, and killing between 45 and 50 Alliance soldiers in a two day battle with Alliance, British and US troops.
The Pentagon said five US soldiers were hurt during a US air raid on Sunday, while the CIA said one of its officers was killed in the rebellion.
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