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Afghan Leaders Ready for Talks in Europe

Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban leaders have agreed to talk about the political future of their country in a neutral country in Europe, as fighting still rages in the South.

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A busy day at the market in Kabul

Life is limping back to normal in Kabul as residents long starved of entertainment rushed to see the first film shown in public since the oppressive and now ousted Taliban captured the city in 1996. Past leaders began surfacing and Kabul Television too beamed back to life.

The frenetic diplomatic offensive launched by the UN and other countries to shape the political future of Afghanistan seems to be yielding positive results too.

The Northern Alliance has backed down from its initial insistence that talks should be held only in Kabul. It is now ready to join other anti-Taliban forces in talks in Europe on forming a future government.

This was announced by Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah at a news conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan along with U.S. envoy James Dobbins.

"The victories and liberation of areas by our armed forces shouldn't affect our commitment to the formation of a fully representative, multi-ethnic broad-based government," he said.

"It will rather encourage us to speed up our efforts with our national, regional and international partners.

Abdullah added that the talks could take place this week in any one of several neutral venues proposed by the United Nations, including Germany, Switzerland and Austria. In Germany, talks would take place in the former capital, Bonn.

The US welcomed the Northern Alliance’s decision. "We're getting very good soundings from the Northern Alliance that they understand their responsibility to be a part of a broad-based government," U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in a television interview.

U.N. negotiator Francesc Vendrell predicts elections will take place in Afghanistan within three years after an interim government served a fixed term of about two years.

Fighting Continues as the Taliban Hold Out

But fighting raged over the weekend in southern Afghanistan in the last remaining vestiges of Taliban controlled territory.

Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported heavy bombardment by US planes and shelling by the opposition Northern Alliance on the cities of Kunduz and Kandahar.

About 46 people are believed to be killed. Pentagon officials said about 75 strike aircraft took part in raids on Saturday on areas near Kabul and against al Qaeda and Taliban targets throughout Afghanistan, including tunnels and caves where they say the fighters are holed up.

The Taliban shows no signs of leaving Kandahar. Instead they imposed a curfew on the city and warned residents that they would be shot if they came out of their homes.

An Alliance spokesman said that the Northern Alliance had stopped gunfire in Kunduz and were negotiating with the Taliban and persuading them to surrender.

About 200 Taliban fighters have already surrendered. But foreign mercenaries fighting with the Taliban – Pakistanis, Arabs and Chechens turned their guns on other scared Afghan comrades killing 53 of them. They have chosen to fight to death rather than surrender.

Foreign troops: A thorny issue

The role of foreign troops in Afghanistan is a sore point with the Northern Alliance, many of whose members view the troops with deep suspicion.

Problems are already cropping up with the deployment of British troops. An 85-strong British advance party flew out on Friday to Bagram airport north of Kabul. It sparked an immediate row with the Northern Alliance.

Meanwhile up to 6,000 British troops are ready to fly to Afghanistan but cannot take off until problems are sorted out on the ground there, a Defence Ministry spokesman said on Monday.

The British government is however playing down the issue and insisting that the Northern Alliance had been consulted over the initial deployment in Afghanistan.

"We are not going to deploy unless there is a clear understanding of the role and risk they face. It is a very fluid situation," a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Germany is sending 3,900 troops to Afghanistan, a decision that almost toppled its government. France said it was sending a contingent to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, while Italy has sent 1,500 sailors - part of 2,500 troops it plans to send.

Bin Laden still evading manhunt

US Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that the top U.S. goal had not yet been achieved.

"Let's keep in mind that our political objective was to get al Qaeda, that terrorist network, and to get Osama bin Laden."

US and British special forces are combing southern Afghanistan for the suspected mastermind behind the September 11 attacks in New York.

"I think he's still in Afghanistan, and it's getting harder for him to hide, as more and more territory is removed from Taliban control," Powell said.

But it’s still unclear whether Bin Laden is in Taliban-controlled territory or has fled to a safe haven.

The London Sunday Times newspaper said British and U.S. special forces had narrowed the hunt for bin Laden to a 30- square-mile (80 sq km) area in southeast Afghanistan. Britain's defence ministry said it could not confirm the report.

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