PESHAWAR, Nov 9: The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance on Friday claimed to have captured the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, clearing the way for the US to bring in men and material from neighbouring Uzbekistan.

“The battle started at around 4pm and lasted for about two hours. We have taken over the city and the Taliban are nowhere to be seen,” Uzbek warlord Gen Rashid Dostum, who spearheaded the attack, told the CNN Turkish language channel.

However, there was no independent confirmation of Dostum’s claim.

The Taliban also refused to confirm the report. “I cannot confirm it,” Taliban’s deputy ambassador Sohail Shaheen told Dawn. “Dostum could not do it alone. He has the blessings and support of the United States. The Soviets had also invaded and occupied Afghanistan but defeat became their destiny. Insha Allah, Americans would meet the same fate. This is the beginning of the Jihad.”

Gen Dostum said that his forces had taken over the airport, the city and the border town of Heratan that provides the strategic rail and road link with Uzbekistan’s border town of Termez via the Soviet-built Friendship Bridge.

The US has over 1,000 mountain rangers in Uzbekistan ready to be airlifted to Afghanistan. Analysts say that Mazar-i-Sharif can provide an important launching pad for the US forces, bringing Kabul and Kandahar within minutes of striking range and is easy to defend.

The fall of Mazar-i-Sharif to the opposition alliance would be the first major setback to the Taliban, who surprised the world by holding on despite incessant US bombing for over one month.

“The city is quite and there are no Taliban soldiers around. Those wounded in the battle are being treated at the local hospital,” he said. Gen Dostum claimed that 500 Taliban had been killed in the four days of fighting, with 90 in the last hours of battle for Mazar.

Analysts, however, said there was no guarantee that Gen Dostum could hold on to the city. Mazar-i-Sharif has changed hands a few time in the past before the Taliban finally re-captured it in 1998.

A report reaching here from Kabul said that Mulla Dadullah, a key Taliban commander, was heading towards Mazar-i-Sharif with 8,000 Taliban forces.

BIGGEST VICTORY: Afghan opposition forces backed by ferocious US airstrikes took control on Friday of Mazar-i-Sharif, scoring their biggest victory of the US-led offensive in Afghanistan, adds AFP.

Hundreds of Northern Alliance resistance fighters, backed by tanks, were also massing on Friday on the frontlines with ruling Taliban forces north of Kabul, readying an offensive on the Afghan capital.

The alliance exulted in its victory in Mazar-i-Sharif, which capped a four-day push from the south by forces fighting from tanks, on foot and by horseback — and with heavy support from US bombers and strike aircraft.

“We have the entire city. The Taliban didn’t put up a fight, they ran away,” said Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem, spokesman for one of the opposition commanders, Atta Mohammad.

Taliban sources quoted by the Afghan Islamic Press acknowledged the militia had withdrawn from the provincial capital, but added that they were “regrouping their forces outside the city”.

“In a short period of time we entered Mazar-i-Sharif,” said another resistance commander, Gen Abdul Rashid Dostam. He added that 90 soldiers of the Taliban militia had been killed in the battle.

The victory, if it holds up, would create a strategic bridgehead on the north-central plains where the Americans could funnel supplies and US troops to their campaign from nearby Uzbekistan.

It would give the anti-Taliban forces control of a major airport and would also split Taliban bastions in the northeast and west.

Mazar-i-Sharif is a big prize for the Northern Alliance, which was chased out of the city by the Taliban three years ago and has been struggling to prove itself to Washington as a worthy political and military force. Finally, the taking of Mazar-i-Sharif would provide the United States with a badly needed triumph in its sometimes flagging month-long war on terrorism to avenge the Sept 11 kamikaze attacks on the United States.

Spokesmen for the Northern Alliance said most civilians had left Mazar-i-Sharif, which once had a population of more than 200,000. Dostam said no Taliban forces were present and “right now things look very calm”.

Haji Mohammad Muhaqiq, another alliance commander, said the opposition had thrown 7,000-8,000 soldiers into the battle, and other spokesmen reported US special forces troops providing guidance.

There was no immediate figure for the Taliban troop strength. Taliban spokesmen said the militia had earlier rushed reinforcements to the area, where their men had come under “savage” US air attacks.

Some 4,000 volunteers, mainly Pakistanis, were dispatched from Kabul on Thursday to fight alongside the Taliban, according to a spokesman for Harakat Jehadi Islami.

But the Taliban said US planes were bombing a main road leading north to Mazar-i-Sharif in the hope of knocking out convoys of troops streaming to help the regime.

Mazar-i-Sharif has a brutal history of fighting among the various Afghan ethnic groups, and the spokesmen for the Northern Alliance, composed mostly of minorities, went out of their way to promise no settling of accounts.

They said the opposition had declared an amnesty for any resident who had supported the Taliban and any military prisoners taken would be dealt with according to Islamic law.

“We won’t enter Mazar-i-Sharif with a sense of revenge,” added Muhaqiq, a senior commander from the Hazara Shia ethnic minority.

North of Kabul, American planes pressed their intense bombing of Taliban positions, including with deadly cluster bombs. Opposition commanders spoke of the prospects of an imminent push on the Afghan capital.

One commander, Yusuf Khan, said several hundred Northern Alliance troops and a number of tanks had been despatched towards Bagram airport, laying unusable some 50km (30 miles) north of Kabul.

They said munitions were being delivered and some forces had already received major supplies of fuel and weapons. The information could not be confirmed independently.

In London, an Afghan opposition senior diplomat suggested their forces were poised for another “bigger” push against the ruling militia on two fronts.

“Things have changed militarily. The Taliban forces are weakening north of Kabul as well as in Mazar-i-Sharif,” said Wali Masood, ambassador to London of ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani.



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