Taleban army flees stronghold

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Taleban army flees stronghold


Alliance forces break through after 34 days of bombing, Blair fears British casualties

OPPOSITION forces last night claimed to have captured the key city of Mazar-i Sharif from the Taleban, handing the American-led coalition its biggest victory yet in its war on terrorism.

Northern Alliance spokesmen said that its forces had routed the Taleban in a fierce battle for the northern Afghan city, and that the regime’s troops were escaping southwards towards Kabul. An American source said that the Taleban fighters were “fleeing in droves”. The Taleban confirmed that Northern Alliance forces had entered the town, but said that its own troops were regrouping.

The Pentagon said the signs were “encouraging”, but that the dust would have to settle — literally and metaphorically — before the fate of Mazar-i Sharif could be determined. Tony Blair said that while the exact position remained unclear the Northern Alliance had made “significant progress” and “the military momentum is now moving against the Taleban”.

Northern Alliance fighters and tanks were also massing along the front just north of Kabul last night in apparent preparation for an attack on the Afghan capital. “We hope to be at the gates of Kabul within three days,” said Sahid Hussein Anwari, an Alliance commander.

For days US warplanes have been pounding Taleban forces around Mazar-i Sharif and Kabul to pave the way for an assault by the Alliance. The capture of Mazar-i Sharif before winter sets in would represent a huge psychological and military boost for America at a time when President Bush desperately needs some successes to bolster an international coalition that has become increasingly jittery after 34 days of non-stop US bombing. If the rebels can hold the city the US will have acquired a priceless land base and airfield inside Afghanistan from which to launch future attacks on the Taleban.

It will be able to bring in weapons for the Northern Alliance, and humanitarian aid for millions of starving Afghans, from Uzbekistan 20 miles to the north, while cutting off supplies to the Taleban elsewhere in Afghanistan.

However, despite yesterday’s apparent breakthrough the Taleban remains in control of Afghanistan’s spiritual capital of Kandahar, Osama bin Laden remains at large, and a senior government source said that Mr Blair was bracing himself for a “significant” number of British casualties over the coming months.

Yesterday’s attacks were launched by the forces of the Uzbek warlord, General Abdul Dostum, who entered the city from the south at about 6pm local time. Speaking by satellite telephone from a hill overlooking Mazar-i Sharif, the general claimed that the battle had lasted a mere 90 minutes, that 90 Taleban fighters had been killed, and that another 200 had been taken prisoner. “We have full control of the town,” he said.

An Alliance spokesman said that inhabitants who had supported the Taleban were being offered an amnesty. After weeks of shuttle diplomacy designed to rally the US-led coalition Mr Blair sounded almost elated. “The military campaign is building momentum, the diplomatic campaign is building momentum, and I think there is an increasing recognition even, I would say, within the Arab and Muslim world, that what bin Laden represents and his desire to Talebanise every Arab and Muslim state is something that is contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of people who live in those countries.”

Richard Cheney, the US Vice-President, said last night that the Taleban’s loss of the city was a “significant defeat for them because they worked hard to try and reinforce it”.

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), November 10, 2001

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