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Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Afghan opposition 'gaining ground'
Northern Alliance soldiers in Faizabad, north-east Afghanistan
The Northern Alliance is heavily outnumbered
The opposition Northern Alliance is reported to be engaged in heavy fighting with Taleban forces in northern Afghanistan.

The opposition said it had captured the Zari district in Balkh province and killed at least 80 Taleban fighters, the Afghan news service AIP reported.

A Taleban official in Kabul confirmed the fighting but denied the opposition claims.

Click here for map of Afghanistan

The fighting coincides with a huge US military build-up in the region for a possible strike against the ruling Taleban, who have refused to hand over the Saudi-born Islamic militant Osama Bin Laden.

Contacts with US

The Northern Alliance says it has been in contact with the US State Department and is ready to help a US operation against the Islamic fundamentalist Taleban.

Correspondents say the Northern Alliance's detailed knowledge of the area and of Taleban military capabilities could prove invaluable to US forces in a strike against Bin Laden and his associates.

The Afghan news service reported that Taleban forces were also attacked in Takhar and Samangan provinces in the north.

The Taleban repulsed two opposition attacks on the Shakh Palang mountain heights in Takhar, AIP reported.

Earlier, the Taleban said they had shot down a pilotless spy plane in northern Afghanistan - but the claim was not confirmed.

Taleban mobilisation

Taleban officials say more than 100,000 people are being trained and armed and there are reports that the Taleban have boosted defences near the border with Pakistan.

Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden's exact whereabouts are unknown

The BBC's Kate Clark in the Pakistani capital Islamabad says refugees arriving from tribal areas in eastern Afghanistan have confirmed that many men are rallying to the Taleban call for a jihad, or struggle, against America.

There was little support for a jihad until US President George Bush spoke of a "crusade" against terrorism, our correspondent says. But since then many Afghan men have been preparing for war, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and shoulder-held rocket launchers.

Russian role

The chief of staff of the Russian army has held talks with the new Northern Alliance commander, General Mohammad Fahim, in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

It is no secret to anyone that Russia, like certain other states, has for several years been providing moral support, and help of another nature

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov

General Anatoly Kvashnin and General Fahim exchanged views on the outcome of possible US air strikes on "terrorist bases" in Afghanistan, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported.

The Taleban now control about 95% of Afghanistan, having pushed the opposition out of Kabul in 1996.

General Fahim became the opposition's military commander on 13 September after his predecessor, Ahmad Shah Masood, was mortally wounded by suicide bombers.

Two US transport planes are reported to have arrived in the neighbouring ex-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. But there has been no official confirmation from the Uzbek authorities or the Pentagon.

Uzbek Muslim attends mosque in Tashkent
Uzbekistan's Muslim leaders have called for calm
Russian media reports say that two US C-130 military transports landed at Tashkent airport, delivering 100 troops, intelligence equipment and other materiel.

US officials say Russian President Vladimir Putin has assured Mr Bush that Moscow will co-operate in any US efforts against Bin Laden and will not oppose any similar help from ex-Soviet states in Central Asia.

Russia has confirmed that it has long been aiding the Afghan opposition.

"It is no secret to anyone that Russia, like certain other states, has for several years been providing moral support, and help of another nature," said Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov.

Russia keeps thousands of troops in Tajikistan, about 11,000 of whom guard the 744-km border with Afghanistan.

Another senior Russian official visiting Dushanbe, Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, said that there had been no discussion with the United States regarding joint military operations.

In another development, the Tajik President, Emomali Rahmonov, said Tajikistan was ready to support US military action against terrorism.

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The BBC's Jacky Rowland in Northern Afghanistan
"Opposition fighters have their sights on the Taleban"
Middle East and Islamic expert Dilip Hiro
says the Northern Alliance is America's planned route into Kabul
See also:

19 Sep 01 | South Asia
On edge: Afghanistan's neighbours
16 Sep 01 | Americas
US prepares for war
17 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan - a tough military option
19 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
Tajikistan's new-found fame
03 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Tajikistan
23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan ex-king offers his services
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