Taleban rule in Afghanistan appears to be drawing to a close, with Taleban fighters turning over their weapons to local Pashtun forces in the southern city of Kandahar. Taleban fighters began surrendering in Kandahar - the Islamic movement's last major stronghold early Friday.

They began handing in their weapons to a commission of tribal elders, Islamic scholars and local anti-Taleban Pashtun forces headed by Mullah Naqibullah.

Before the surrender began there were reports of widespread looting in Kandahar.

Taleban fighters are also reported to be surrendering in the neighboring provinces of Helmand and Zabul, as well as in the strategic town of Spin Boldak near the Pakistan border.

Hamid Karzai, the man who has been designated as the head of the new interim Afghan government told the U.S. television network NBC Friday that Taleban rule in Afghanistan is finished.

"The Taleban regime is ended as of today, morning," he said.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, has left Kandahar.

Mr. Karzai says he does not know the whereabouts of the Taleban leader, but he says he is now a wanted man and will be put on trial if he is captured.

"I have been asking him for months, since my arrival in Afghanistan, to work to topple the Taleban regime, and to remove terrorism from Afghanistan," said Mr. Karzai. "I have been asking him repeatedly to denounce terrorism and war and the suffering of the Afghan people. I also asked the Taleban cabinet yesterday, that he must distance himself clearly and denounce terrorism, I gave him a last chance yesterday, I gave him a last chance also last night. He did not avail of those chances. From today onward he is a fugitive from law and he must be arrested and put on trial."

The United States has said it will not accept any deal that allows Mullah Omar to go free. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday the Taleban leader harbored terrorists and must be brought to justice.

Until the Taleban decision to surrender Kandahar, Mullah Omar had called on his men to fight to the death.

Meanwhile, Heavy fighting is reported in eastern Afghanistan, where several thousand al-Qaida fighters are believed holed up in mountain hideouts.

U.S. warplanes are reported to be carrying out intense bombing raids day and night against a cave and tunnel complex in the Tora Bora region near the Pakistan border. They are joined by Afghan forces who have been pounding the al-Qaida positions with tank fire.

Elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, U.S. Marines say they killed seven men suspected of being Taleban or al-Qaida fighters. U.S. Captain David Romley said the fighting took place late Thursday, when a "hunter-killer" team of patrolling Marines spotted three vehicles approaching them at high speed. There were no U.S. casualties.