U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says the Taleban will lose its last stronghold in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Mr. Rumsfeld says the choice of whether it is a peaceful or bloody process is up to Taleban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar.

Mr. Rumsfeld says he hopes the Taleban and al-Qaida forces holding out in Kandahar will surrender. But he tells Pentagon reporters, it is possible they may fight to the death, endangering the lives of civilians still trapped in the Taleban's last bastion. In Kandahar," he said, "the hope remains that Taleban and al Qaeda forces will surrender, but we have reason to believe that Omar may have instructed his forces to continue fighting, which of course is putting the civilian population in Kandahar and that region at risk."

Mr. Rumsfeld says if the Taleban refuse to surrender, anti-Taleban forces massing around the city are likely to attack.

He does not rule out the use of American troops but indicates there are no plans to do so in any final assault. "We're not going to rule out anything," he continued, "but we don't have any plans at the present time to be using U.S. forces in that way."

Over a thousand U.S. Marines are now at a base near Kandahar. Defense officials have revealed they are patrolling routes south of the city in an apparent effort to prevent any Taleban or al-Qaida escapes toward the Pakistani border.

Mr. Rumsfeld will not say if U.S. forces are also engaged in the east of the country in searching suspected Taleban and al-Qaida hiding places in caves and tunnels outside Jalalabad.

But he acknowledges Afghan forces are in the region, searching for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other terrorists at the encouragement of the U.S. government.

Mr. Rumsfeld acknowledges bin Laden may try to flee the country. But he says for the moment, the terrorist leader is believed to still be in Afghanistan.