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Britain pledges 5,000 peacekeepers for Kabul

Britain pledged 5,000 more troops for Afghanistan on Wednesday and U.N. diplomats said those forces could begin landing at Bagram airfield north of Kabul as early as today to establish a peacekeeping force that ultimately would include soldiers from Western and Muslim countries.

With Taliban rule crumbling as the radical militia retreats to the south, the United Nations plans to invite leaders of various Afghan factions to a series of talks on the possible formation of a transitional government. Those negotiations could begin in the United Arab Emirates within the next few days.

On the battlefield, the Taliban, seeking to regroup in Kandahar and nearby mountains, faced an armed revolt Wednesday by several Pashtun tribal groups in southern Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters also were reported to be withdrawing from the eastern provinces of Paktia, Khost, Lowgar and Konar, as well as from central Oruzgan. The Taliban is "in retreat virtually all over the country," said Vice President Dick Cheney.

The emergence of armed opposition from the Taliban's fellow Pashtuns _ responding to Northern Alliance triumphs in the northern half of the country _ marked a shift of alliances long sought by the Bush administration in its drive to dismantle the Taliban government and flush out terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Kandahar and Kunduz, a northern city near the border with Tajikistan, were the only two major population centers still under Taliban control, with Kabul occupied by the Northern Alliance on Tuesday. Alliance commanders in Taloqan, just east of Kunduz, said they were seeking the surrender of Kunduz's defenders while a pair of B-52 bombers, guided by a half-dozen U.S. spotters pointing with laser beams, pounded Taliban lines.

Members of the Pashtun opposition forces that have been hastily formed in southern Afghanistan said their leaders also sought to arrange the surrender of Taliban forces in Kandahar, but that Taliban and Arab fighters rejected their demands. The presence of the Arab fighters, estimated to number between 4,000 and 5,000, they said, was stiffening Taliban resolve.

In the city itself, the situation was unclear. From the accounts of travelers arriving at the Pakistan border, it appeared an unknown number of Taliban troops, backed by their Arab and Pakistani comrades, retained control of the streets, erecting checkpoints and aggressively searching passersby. The Afghan Islamic Press reported announcements from the minarets of mosques saying anyone on the street after 9 p.m. would be shot.

But at least two groups of tribesmen were battling Taliban forces just outside the city, opposition members said. One of the groups was reported to have attacked the airport.

"People in the southern provinces have been rising up against the Taliban," Hobaidullah, the deputy intelligence chief of the Northern Alliance, said in Kabul. "There is no longer any safe area in Afghanistan for Osama to carry out his operations."

Hamid Karzai, who commands one of the Pashtun groups in central Uruzgan province, is moving toward Kandahar from the north, according to Northern Alliance officials, and is being resupplied by U.S. helicopters. At the same time, another Pashtun commander, Gul Agha Shirzai, is driving up from the south in a convoy of dozens of trucks, the officials said.

U.S. warplanes kept up the pressure on the Taliban with strikes in areas south of Jalalabad thought to contain al-Qaida hideouts. Bombing also was reported at a base in Khost, southeast of Kabul near the Pakistani border. But defense officials said many aircraft returned without launching their weapons due to the difficulty of correctly identifying moving targets.

The New York Times, quoting senior U.S. officials, reported Wednesday that more than 100 U.S. commandos are in southern Afghanistan, driving around in special vehicles and carrying out covert operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The have blocked roads to try to trap Taliban and al-Qaida commanders, marked potential landing strips for U.S. forces and conducted reconnaissance missions.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that bin Laden might have access to a helicopter and might try to sneak out of Afghanistan to rendezvous with a waiting jet in a nearby country. "My guess is what he'd probably do is take a helicopter down one of those valleys that we couldn't pick up and pop over to some part of the country where there is an airfield and have a plane waiting for him," Rumsfeld said.