At the same time some 1,500 opponents of the Taliban – warriors and holy men – gathered in Peshawar, Pakistan, to lay plans for the next Afghan government, Taliban fighters located and killed one of their most influential opponents – and may be hunting for an American reported to have accompanied him.

Abdul Haq, a well-known hero of the anti-Soviet guerrilla war and long-standing opponent of the Taliban, was found south of the Afghan capital, Kabul, captured and then killed, despite pleas from his brother and from one of the sons of the exiled king of Afghanistan, according to a British Broadcasting Corporation report.

Taliban authorities also claimed in a statement to the BBC that an American was traveling with Haq and is now attempting to elude Taliban fighters.

According to reports, Haq attempted to call in U.S. air support when he found himself trapped. The Taliban claims that “several cars and a satellite telephone” were confiscated, according to the BBC. Two other men with Haq were also killed.

Haq, a member of the Pashtun ethnic group, was seeking to undermine support for the Taliban among other Pashtuns, who are the primary backers of the Taliban regime.

The death of Haq came as opponents of the Taliban came together to discuss what government would follow the anticipated collapse of the present regime in Kabul.

The conference favored convening a “loja jirga” –a grand council of tribal leaders – which would be presided over by the 87-year-old exiled Afghan king, Zahir Shah.

Shah first assumed the throne in 1933 and ruled until his ouster by his cousin in 1973. During Shah’s reign, Afghanistan built schools, hospitals, a university and fostered ties with the West. Shortly after his removal, a Marxist regime took power and called upon the Soviet Union for assistance against a growing rebellion.

The Soviet Union sent troops but withdrew in 1989, following serious losses to the loosely organized mujahedin Islamic guerrilla fighters.

Civil strife continued after the overthrow of the Afghan communist government and resulted in the establishment of the present Taliban regime, which still controls about 90 percent of the country.

The conference in Peshawar is an attempt to establish an agreed upon procedure of replacing the Taliban authorities once that regime falls.

The call for a meeting of tribal leaders has international support. The United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, is “very much in favor” of convening the tribal chiefs, according to a report from Deutsche Welle, the official broadcasting service of the German government.

Brahimi, however, rejects the idea of sending U.N. troops into Afghanistan.

The Italian daily Corriere della Sera reported that the assembly also called for other measures to reduce violence in Afghanistan, including removing all weapons from Kabul and, if necessary, making it an “open city.”

The conference in Peshawar also sought to undermine the Taliban’s strategy of using the concept of “holy war” against their opponents.

One of the main leaders in the assembly, a long-time supporter of the Afghan monarch, former anti-Soviet guerrilla fighter and religious leader Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani, affirmed that the current struggle in Afghanistan was not a holy war – a jihad – but a civil war, according to Corriere della Sera.

Old enmities emerged anew during the conference as Gailani warned that if chaos follows the fall of the Taliban regime, a “particular group” – understood by participants at the conference as referring to the rival Northern Alliance – could come to power in Kabul, Corriere della Sera reported

The Northern Alliance (officially known as the United National and Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan – Unifsa), long supported by Russia, has been fighting the Taliban since 1993 and is comprised of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.

The presence of active members of the Taliban in Peshawar also may cause difficulty. The Russians refuse to consider any Afghan government having any Taliban representatives, while some participants at the Peshawar conference are actively seeking to persuade “moderate” Talibs to join in a new political coalition.

The opposition assembly in Peshawar demanded an end to U.S. bombing raids on Afghanistan as the prime condition for the meeting of the tribal leaders.

The participants at the Peshawar conference may soon have to take into account the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, as the pressure for a more extensive ground war continues to build.

Elite U.S. troops have already staged raids in Afghanistan, and some 200 British commandos are standing by aboard warships off the coast of Pakistan, with another 400 in Britain awaiting possible deployment, according to a recent BBC report.

British forces presumably would be used in conjunction with larger U.S. units committed to ground operations in Afghanistan.

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