By Steven Gutkin
JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan – The opposition proclaimed victory today over the Taliban in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the most significant prize in northern Afghanistan. An American official confirmed opposition forces were in the city and said fighters of the ruling Islamic militia were fleeing.
The capture of Mazar-e-Sharif would be the biggest success since President Bush launched airstrikes Oct. 7 to punish the Taliban for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
If the opposition can hold the city – which in the late 1990s changed hands several times and was the site of bloody massacres – it would open a land bridge to neighboring Uzbekistan, allow a flood of weapons and supplies to the opposition alliance and give U.S.-led forces their first major staging ground in Afghanistan for the campaign against the Taliban.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said they could not confirm the fall of the city. “There’s a lot of dust in the air right now,” Stufflebeem said. “There are skirmishes across these various fronts and with that dust in the air it’s very hard to tell what’s exactly going on.”
However, a U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed opposition forces had entered the city. He said fighting was continuing, but “really, it’s the Taliban fleeing the city in droves.” The Taliban were heading toward the capital, Kabul, he said.
Alliance envoy Haron Amin said in Washington that alliance generals had “confirmed the liberation of Mazar-e-Sharif.”
He said forces under three commanders occupied strategic high points near the city and the Taliban fled to the east and west of the city, many in pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles.
“They are going to be in our territory,” he said. “We will be able to cut them off.”
He said about 3,000 Taliban fighters had been in the city, and claimed 500 of them died and 500 were captured in recent fighting.
The Taliban said opposition troops had entered Mazar-e-Sharif and that their own forces were regrouping outside the city, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported.
U.S. warplanes intensified their bombardment of Taliban defenses around the city in recent days, clearing the way as opposition forces advanced. Opposition leaders said their forces entered quickly today and took control of the entire city.
Mazar-e-Sharif has a population of around 200,000 people – most of them ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, the same as the opposition. Most Taliban are Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said there had been “substantial progress” at Mazar-e-Sharif and there was no doubt “that the military momentum is now moving against the Taliban.”
In other developments:
_ Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan burned tires, blocked transit routes and clashed with police in a nationwide strike today to protest their government’s pro-U.S. policies on Afghanistan. Four demonstrators were killed.
_ Bush said the worldwide coalition against terrorism has never been stronger and added, “now is the time for action” on military, diplomatic and other fronts.
_ Britain plans to release a dossier of evidence against bin Laden next week, a senior official said today. British officials have expressed concern that public support for the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan has wavered.
Mazar-e-Sharif has a large airport that could be refurbished for American and allied aircraft to conduct humanitarian missions and mount attacks against the Taliban. And the city controls a supply route from Uzbekistan, 45 miles to north – a passage that does not get blocked by winter snowfalls, a key concern for the opposition alliance.
Losing Mazar-e-Sharif would also isolate Taliban units in northwestern Afghanistan.
An opposition spokesman, Ashraf Nadeem, said northern alliance fighters overran Mazar-e-Sharif’s airport and then entered the city through Taliban lines at the Pul-e-Imam Bukhri bridge on its southern edge. Taliban forces appeared to have abandoned Mazar-e-Sharif in the face of the assault, he said.
“The whole city is now under control of our forces,” Abdullah, foreign minister of the Afghan government-in-exile, reached by telephone from Jabal Saraj.
“The air support from the United States helped our forces make their advance,” said Abdullah, who uses only one name. Reporters have no access to the area around Mazar-e-Sharif, and telephone links to the city have been cut.
Nadeem said opposition fighters were “moving through one neighborhood at a time” and that commanders were ordered to restrain their fighters. Opposition commander Atta Mohammed announced an amnesty for anyone who formerly supported the Taliban, Nadeem said by telephone from Dar-e-Suf. The opposition directed the drive on Mazar-e-Sharif from Dar-e-Suf, about 50 miles to the south.
Human rights groups say the opposition put as many as 2,000 Taliban to death in Mazar-e-Sharif when they took the city back from the Islamic militia in 1997.
In 1998, when the Taliban recaptured the city, they were accused by the same groups of massacring several hundred people, many of them Shiite Muslims.
Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek commander who once controlled Mazar-e-Sharif, told Turkey’s CNN-Turk television that the alliance overran the city quickly. He said he was speaking by satellite telephone from a hill overlooking the city.
Dostum claimed northern alliance forces killed 500 Taliban fighters and took hundreds of others prisoner in the past four days, while the opposition suffered 28 killed and more than 30 wounded.
There was no way to confirm his casualty claims, which both sides have exaggerated in the conflict.
Taliban troops appeared to be retreating east toward Samangan province, Dostum said. The main Mazar-Kabul road runs east before turning toward the south to the capital about 200 miles away.
Elsewhere, U.S. jets struck Taliban front line positions about 30 miles north of Kabul. Taliban soldiers fought back with anti-aircraft guns after several days of holding their fire.
Col. Zia Hauddin, an opposition commander, said the U.S. bombing should be intensified. He said the Taliban had reinforced the front line with about 2,000 troops, mostly Arab and Pakistani volunteers.
U.S. jets and B-52 bombers repeatedly hit Taliban targets overnight and early today north of Kabul and around Kandahar, the southern city that is the Taliban headquarters.
The opposition has said it intends to launch an offensive to take Kabul, but so far has not tried to move against the heavily entrenched Taliban lines there. The U.S.-led coalition has also been wary about the political fallout of opposition fighters seizing the capital as it tries to bring other Afghan factions into a broad-based government to replace the Taliban regime.
Powell told reporters it would be best if the opposition did not move immediately, since Kabul’s population is likely to be hostile to it. The last time opposition leaders controlled the capital, factional fighting killed some 50,000 people. Powell said he would like to see Kabul become an “open city,” somewhat like Berlin after World War II.
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