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Tuesday, 16 October, 2001, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Afghan opposition 'seizes key airport'
Northern Alliance soldier firing a gun
The Northern Alliance are claiming many defections
The anti-Taleban Northern Alliance says its forces have captured the airport outside the key Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

The claim could not be independently verified. It was contradicted by another unconfirmed report, this one by a pro-Taleban news agency, saying Taleban fighters had beaten back the Northern Alliance forces which had been advancing towards Mazar-e-Sharif.

map of area
The Northern Alliance says its forces are poised to capture the city within hours.

Mazar-e-Sharif is the most important city in northern Afghanistan and its fall would be a huge blow to the Taleban.

It would probably give the alliance access to the border with Uzbekistan, and free opposition-held enclaves far to the south, in the centre of the country.

Claim and counter-claim

The Northern Alliance has also been claiming mass defections from Taleban ranks and the support of local people.

One positive report on the BBC is worth three battalions of fighting men on the ground

Afghan commander
But the BBC's Afghanistan correspondent, Kate Clark, warns that these claims must be treated with great caution.

The city is run by Afghans from Taleban strongholds in the south. Local allies have kept them in power and, according to the Northern Alliance, it is those commanders who are now defecting.

Thousands of civilians were massacred in the 1997/8 battles for the city

But claims of defections last week were not borne out, and the psychological impact of news reports on morale is great.

"One positive report on the BBC is worth three battalions of fighting men on the ground," one Afghan commander told our correspondent.

Verification problems

Verifying reports from rural areas is difficult - the only people with telephones are the commanders on both sides.

Two Northern Alliance groups operating in the area gave our correspondent details of villages they say they have captured and which Taleban commanders they claim have defected.

They said the Taleban now depended on Afghans from the south, and on foreign Islamic militants - Uzbeks, Chechens and Pakistanis.

Correspondents say it is likely that these foreign militants and the Taleban will put up fierce resistance for the city.

The BBC's Clarence Mitchell
at BBC Monitoring reports on early news of seizure of the airport
See also:

16 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition's strategic target
15 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan rebels change tack
08 Oct 01 | South Asia
Boost for Northern Alliance
11 Dec 98 | South Asia
Mazar-e-Sharif calm after storm
14 Oct 01 | Americas
Military campaign: One week on
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