Taliban leader reportedly on the run

Taliban supreme commander Mullah Mohammed Omar has agreed to leave his headquarters at Kandahar and turn over the southern Afghan city to two local Pashtun leaders, the Afghan Islamic Press said today.

The Pakistan-based agency said Omar agreed to leave the city and head for the mountains following discussions with "close friends and army commanders."

Under the deal, control of the city will pass to Mullah Naqibullah and Haji Basher, two former commanders of Afghan resistance forces in the war against Soviet invaders who are not members of the Taliban. The agency said Omar agreed to leave within 24 hours.

Meanwhile, U.S. warplanes struck positions near the Taliban's two principal remaining strongholds--Kandahar in the south and Kunduz in the north--today, the first day of Ramadan, the Associated Press reported.

The latest bombardment came despite earlier calls from some Muslim nations--including key ally Pakistan--for restraint during Islam's holy month. But Pakistan implicitly defended the air strikes, noting they were less intense than in recent days and weeks.

Even before Ramadan began, U.S. planners had signaled a change in tactics following the rout of the Taliban in much of the country over the past week. American commanders have said that raids will now be more tightly targeted, aimed at Osama bin Laden and the top Taliban leadership. U.S. officials today said that Mohammad Atef, a top bin Laden deputy is believed to have been killed by a U.S. airstike in the last two days.

Near the city of Herat, by the Iranian border, Taliban forces vacated an air base, the Afghan Islamic Press reported. It was not immediately known whether anti-Taliban forces had taken over the base, the largest in western Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, British troops arrived at the Bagram airfield, north of Kabul, on what the Defense Ministry said was a mission to prepare the facility for use in a future humanitarian mission. France sent its first contingent of soldiers to northern Afghanistan today as part of an international effort to help secure the area for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

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