Abandoned U.S. Embassy compound stormed; Taliban leader urges people to return to Kabul

Wednesday, September 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Shouting ``Long Live Osama!'' and ``Death to America!'' thousands of protesters burned an effigy of President Bush, then stormed the abandoned U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital, torching old cars and a guardhouse and tearing down the U.S. seal above the entrance.

In northern Afghanistan, where an opposition alliance is fighting troops of the hard-line Taliban government, heavy new fighting was reported.

Radio Kabul quoted unidentified government officials as saying Taliban forces pushed back opposition troops in the Razi district of Badghis province in northwestern Afghanistan. The officials said opposition fighters were killed, without providing an exact number, and weapons were confiscated. An opposition commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, confirmed the report.

The Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, appealed to Afghans who have fled the capital, Kabul, to come home. Even if the city is attacked, they will be safe, he said in a statement faxed to news organizations in neighboring Pakistan.

The demonstration at the U.S. Embassy, organized by students at Kabul University, was the largest anti-American protest in Kabul since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The United States suspects Saudi exile Osama bin Laden orchestrated the attacks and has ordered the Taliban _ who have been sheltering him for five years _ to turn him over or face punishment.

The old embassy compound was guarded by a few Afghan security guards who were no match for the crowd. The last U.S. diplomats left the embassy in 1989 just ahead of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Smoke billowed into the sky after about five vehicles were set afire in the embassy compound, and several men used hammers to remove the large circular U.S. seal above the front entrance. Taliban authorities eventually dispersed the protesters and extinguished the fires.

``It's just another sign of the fact that this is serious,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the attack on the former embassy. ``It doesn't change anything about what the president has said or what the mission of the United States will be.''

In Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, senior Pakistani officials said Pakistani and U.S. defense and intelligence officials had reached general agreement on an anti-terror program that included some provisions for possible attacks on terrorist bases in Afghanistan, but that some sticking points remained.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials said both sides want to minimize the use of ground forces in any strike. They also said some differences emerged during the talks between high-ranking Pakistani officials and an American delegation that includes senior defense and intelligence representatives.

The points of disagreement include whether the United States or other outside parties should lend support to the opposition alliance, something Pakistan _ the only country that still has diplomatic ties with the Taliban _ has expressed strong misgivings over.

Other points of contention: what action is warranted against Pakistan-based militant groups, and whether or not the United Nations should approve any operation against Afghanistan.

Some differences were resolved Tuesday, when some U.S. delegation members met Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the officials said.

Pakistan was clearly uncomfortable with public discussion of its role in any U.S. strike. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Riaz Mohammed Khan, said Wednesday that ``no joint operation or specific contingency plans have been placed before the Pakistan government.''

He added that the fight was not against Afghanistan or its people, but against terrorism.

``Pakistan cannot and can never join in any hostile action against Afghanistan or the Afghan people _ we are deeply conscious that the destinies of the two people are intertwined,'' said Khan.

Anti-government protests have been held in cities across Pakistan since Musharraf pledged to support U.S. military action in Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, attackers threw a grenade and opened fire on hundreds of people gathering in Karachi for what would have been the first public meeting supporting Musharraf. At least 12 people were injured, police and witnesses said. The assailants fled.

In northern Afghanistan, new battles broke out between Taliban and opposition fighters in the provinces of Samangan and Balkh. Mohammed Ashraf Nadeem, a spokesman for the opposition's northern alliance, said both sides used artillery, rocket launchers, tanks and machine guns, but that neither managed to take over new territory.

Nadeem, reached by telephone from Kabul, said the Taliban had rushed 3,000 new troops to the region from Kandahar, the southern city where the Taliban are based.

No casualty toll was immediately available, and his account of the fighting could not be independently confirmed.