KHWAJA BAHAUDDIN, Nov 4: US B-52 bombers unleashed their heaviest payloads on Taliban frontline positions on Sunday as militia and opposition forces battled for a key area in northern Afghanistan.

The US military campaign entered a fifth week with at least 100 bombs dropped on Taliban positions in the northeast near the frontier with Tajikistan, witnesses said.

B-52 bombers flying over the Kokcha River hammered a hillside where the Taliban were dug in, producing a wall of black and grey smoke and explosions that shook nearby villages.

The raid was the largest on Taliban troops arrayed against opposition Northern Alliance fighters in the battle for control of northeastern transport routes into Tajikistan before winter.

A Pentagon spokesman said in Washington that 65 strike aircraft were used, including up to eight long-range bombers. The number of bombs dropped in five hours exceeded the total for four previous strikes on the area in the last week.

The Northern Alliance said it was preparing a major offensive against Taliban positions and eventually Kabul. But there was no sign of an offensive on Sunday.

The onset of winter could thwart any short-term bid by the opposition to grab Kabul until the spring thaw. Further east, the alliance confirmed it had lost ground to the Taliban.

Qari Qudratullah, a spokesman for Northern Alliance commander Atta Mohammad, told AFP the Taliban had recaptured the eastern part of Aq-Kupruk town, 70km south of Mazar-i-Sharif, after attacks were launched from 2pm on Saturday until early Sunday.

The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan was quoted as saying late Saturday that the militia had completely retaken Aq-Kupruk.

“There was fierce fighting and eventually the Taliban made an advance. They are now in control of the eastern part of Aq-Kupruk. But we are preparing to launch a counter-attack,” Qudratullah said.

US air strikes on Kabul also continued and hit a Taliban truck driving in the capital, injuring nine militia fighters, said Abdul Wakil Omari, deputy head of the Taliban’s Bakhter information agency.

He said a rocket was fired from a US plane or helicopter that flew over the city. He said none of the injuries was serious.

300 TALIBAN WOUNDED: In Islamabad, aid workers in contact with Kabul said the bombing of Taliban positions north of Kabul had wounded between 200 and 300 Taliban fighters since B-52s began carpet-bombing last week.

The casualties were being treated in military hospitals in the city and security was tight, said the aid workers, who declined to be identified.

The report could not be independently verified.

SERVICEMAN RESCUED: US Special Forces rescued a US serviceman who fell ill in Afghanistan, according to media reports in Washington.

The rescue operation on Saturday came one day after a failed attempt to retrieve the ailing serviceman resulted in the crash-landing of one search-and-rescue helicopter, US military officials told CNN television.

SPECIAL FORCES: The US military leaders said they had seriously damaged the ability of Taliban’s to govern, communicate or defend themselves.

Air Force Gen Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington the United States had significantly increased the number of special forces troops operating inside Afghanistan in recent days.

“Just last night, the night before, we put in a couple more teams,” Gen Myers told NBC’s Meet the Press programme. “And the more teams we get on the ground, the more effectively we will bring air power to bear on the Taliban’s lines.”—Agencies

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