Afghan Opposition Advances After Seizing Key City
By Sayed Salahuddin and Rosalind Russell
Saturday November 10 1:33 AM ET
KABUL/JABAL-US-SARAJ (Reuters) - Afghan opposition troops patrolled the streets of northern Mazar-i-Sharif on Saturday, just hours after routing fighters of the ruling Taliban militia in the first major victory of the U.S.-led campaign.
The Taliban conceded they had lost the city to the Northern Alliance in their biggest blow since the United States launched air strikes 35 days ago to flush out Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden, blamed for the suicide-hIjacking attacks in the United States that killed up to 4,600 people.
Mazar-i-Sharif would give U.S. forces a base on the ground, since it commands the main airport in northern Afghanistan. It also would enable them to supply the poorly equipped and poorly trained alliance forces further south, since the city straddles crucial supply routes between the capital Kabul and Uzbekistan.
``Yes, Mazar has gone,'' Taliban Defense Minister Obaidullah Akhund told Reuters in a brief interview.
``The city and its airport are with the opposition. Our forces are in Tangi Tashgurghan,'' he said, referring to a town some 60 km (40 miles) to the east of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Forces of ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum entered the city late on Friday and by first light were patrolling the streets, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) said.
Dostum said the battle for the city lasted just an hour and a half before the Taliban retreated, leaving eight dead Northern Alliance troops and 90 of their own men.
Northern Alliance spokesman Ashraf Nadeem later said some 250 Taliban fighters had been killed and 500 taken prisoner.
Northern Alliance Interior Minister Yunis Qanuni told Reuters the local population, mainly ethnic Uzbeks who have little love for the mostly Pashtun Taliban, aided the entry of the rebel forces who now plan to advance south on a highway to Kabul.
``The people of Mazar-i-Sharif helped us. They captured some of the Pakistani and Arab soldiers and handed them over to us,'' Qanuni said, referring to the foreign fighters in the Taliban militia who are believed to number several thousand in the north.
``The situation in the city is now quiet and all parts are under our control,'' he said.
HACKED TO DEATH
The city was for more than a decade the powerbase of General Dostum before it was taken by the Taliban three years ago. Civilians were hacked to death at random in that 1998 battle as the Taliban took revenge for their bloodiest defeat when they attempted to capture the city the previous year.
The Taliban were fleeing swiftly, Qanuni said.
``They are running away. They have lost their morale and they are not fighting back,'' he said.
That report could not be independently confirmed.
Qanuni said his forces would now try to push southeast to gain control of the road to Kabul. Taliban forces were reinforcing the town of Pul-i-Khumri on the main road.
The Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front, said it had taken Sar-i-Pol province to the south of Mazar-i-Sharif early in the morning. The town of Hairatan, on the Amu Darya river that marks Afghanistan's northern border, had fallen.
``The border is still closed but we hope to open it shortly,'' Qanuni said. Hairatan lies just across the river from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
Taliban fighters appeared to be retreating east toward the neighboring province of Kunduz or heading for Kabul.
Others were moving west through Jowzjan province, trying to make a new stand near the town of Shiberghan -- Dostum's birthplace -- and following the main road to the strategic southwestern city of Herat, Afghan Islamic Press said.
Herat is the gateway to southern Kandahar, powerbase of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and is already under pressure from mujahideen warlord Ismail Khan, who ruled the city in the early 1990s but was thrown out by the Taliban in 1995.
MASSING NEAR KABUL
On another front, just north of Kabul, hundreds of Northern Alliance troops, backed by tanks, massed after darkness fell on Friday and commanders said they would advance soon.
A Reuters cameraman saw about 800 Northern Alliance fighters marching toward the front line along with artillery and four tanks while U.S. jets roared overhead, bombing Taliban positions overlooking the opposition-held Bagram airport north of Kabul.
Commanders at the front said on Friday they expected to launch an overnight offensive to take the Taliban positions that have made the airport unusable.
But a senior opposition source at the front said later that the advance had been postponed.
The Northern Alliance has said it would not march into Kabul if it gets that far, but would halt outside the city limits.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington was not encouraging the Northern Alliance to try to take the capital.
``To be frank, there would probably be a high level of tension in the city if the Northern Alliance were to come in, in force, with a population in Kabul that may not at the moment be friendly to the Northern Alliance,'' Powell said on Fox News.
``So it might be a better course of action to let it become an open city, if we get to that point, and then bring in others to begin to stand up a new Afghan government or provide some sort of interim arrangement,'' Powell said. ``But we're some time away from having to face those kinds of questions and problems.''
BIN LADEN'S NUCLEAR CLAIMS
Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said that in an interview inside Afghanistan, bin Laden had said he had nuclear and chemical weapons and might use them to respond to U.S. attacks.
``I wish to declare that if America used chemical or nuclear weapons against us, then we may retort with chemical and nuclear weapons. We have the weapons as deterrent,'' the newspaper quoted bin Laden as telling a well-known Pakistani journalist in Afghanistan on Wednesday night.
Asked where he got the weapons, bin Laden replied: ``Go to the next question,'' the newspaper said.
Independent experts say it is unlikely that bin Laden has developed a nuclear capability.
Dawn said Hamid Mir, editor of Pakistan's Ausaf newspaper, had interviewed bin Laden, prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, after being taken blindfold by jeep from Kabul on November 7.
The report was not possible to confirm, but the newspaper published a photograph of bin Laden and the reporter.
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