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Monday, 8 October, 2001, 17:46 GMT 18:46 UK
Boost for Northern Alliance
Northern Alliance fighters just north of Kabul
The Northern Alliance has a new lease of life
By the BBC's Rupert Wingfield Hayes in Northern Afghanistan

For years, Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance has faced nothing but defeat at the hands of the Taleban.

Few Kabul residents are fond of the Taleban, but most are equally fearful of the Northern Alliance

But the American and British air strikes against the Taleban have put Afghanistan's opposition alliance in a much more confident mood.

Commanders in the north are now talking about a major offensive against the Taleban in days.

They claim that some operations have already begun, with troops in the north-west of the country over-running a dozen villages overnight and capturing 250 Taleban prisoners.

New lease of life

But the real goal is the Afghan capital Kabul.

The Northern Alliance were driven out by the Taleban five years ago. Now they control less than 10% of the country, small pockets in the north and north-west.

Many outside Afghanistan had written them off as a spent force.

Ahmed Shah Masood
Ahmed Shah Masood was assassinated days before the US attacks

Just two days before the attacks on New York and Washington, the Northern Alliance's charismatic military leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, was assassinated. His murder carried out by two suicide bombers, who are thought to have been sent by Osama Bin Laden.

It looked like the final blow. But then the US attacks came, and the Northern Alliance were given a new lease of life.

Outside help

Now they can sit back and watch, as US and British forces pound the Taleban from the air.

In the coming days, they will almost certainly try to capitalise on the chaos caused by the attacks and attempt to break out of their northern strongholds and advance on Kabul.

If they do, it might well lead to a mass exodus from the city. Few Kabul residents are fond of the Taleban, but most are equally fearful of the Northern Alliance.

Former Afghan king Mohammad Zahir Shah
The Northern Alliance has contacted the former Afghan king
Today the opposition alliance likes to portray itself as liberal and pro-Western. Its officials tell foreign reporters that it supports a broad-based government in Kabul once the Taleban is defeated.

It has even sent a representative to meet with the former Afghan king, who is in exile in Italy.

But however good their intentions, Kabul residents will find it hard to forget what happened last time the different factions inside the Northern Alliance took over their city.

Bad memories

In 1992, Kabul was overrun by the Mujahadin, the rag-tag group of Muslim guerrillas who had fought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to a standstill.

But no sooner had they taken control of the city than they started to squabble amongst themselves. Squabbling rapidly descended into all-out fighting, and artillery duels destroyed more than half the city, leaving as many as 50,000 civilians dead.

The groups that destroyed Kabul then are by and large the same groups that form the Northern Alliance today.

See also:

26 Sep 01 | South Asia
Fighting rages in north Afghanistan
23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan ex-king offers his services
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