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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 18:23 GMT 19:23 UK
The Taleban's new tactics
Northern Alliance on their front line near Kabul
The Taleban are edging towards the opposition's front line for protection
By BBC defence correspondent Paul Adams

As British and American officials speak of the damage inflicted on Taleban fighters and equipment, the Taleban may be adopting new tactics to avoid being hit.

Reports from Kabul suggest that some Taleban soldiers have moved into residential areas, assuming perhaps that this will make it more difficult for American warplanes to hit them.

Girl in bakery in Kabul
The Taleban are reported to be hiding in residential areas
North of the city, journalists have reported a Taleban move towards the positions held by their Northern Alliance opponents.

Again, the motive would appear to make themselves more secure. If the front lines are now closer than ever, this might explain reports that American warplanes accidentally dropped bombs on Northern Alliance controlled ground earlier in the week.

Treading a tight line

Briefing reporters in Washington on Tuesday, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeam said he was not aware of reports that US planes had inadvertently struck Northern Alliance positions, but admitted it was a "tight line".

"And that means we've got to be very precise in where we're putting our ordnance down," he said.

It has been reported for some time that the Taleban were dispersing their fighters. With American planes targeting troop concentrations, it's a move that obviously makes sense.

Bombing victim
The Taleban's rumoured strategy will make civilians even more at risk
Use of the fearsome AC-130 gunship in such attacks would only have driven home the point that it was suicide to leave fielded forces in areas where they were sitting ducks.

There may also be a degree of cynicism to the move into residential neighbourhoods. The Pentagon has already admitted to a handful of accidental strikes on civilian areas, and the Taleban seems only too willing to exploit such episodes for propaganda value.

Rear Admiral Stufflebeam said the Taleban was trying to save their troops, but could not confirm the use of civilian neighbourhoods.

Civilian casualties

"I am seeing anecdotal reports that they are considering using neighbourhoods and mosques and other areas where they can try to hide or get in the close proximity of to try to salvage some of their capability," he said.

He indicated, however, that American forces would continue to seek out targets.

"We will find other ways," he said, "using the full-spectrum capability of our military to get at those who might cowardly decide to hide in residential neighbourhoods."

His remarks left open the possibility that special ground forces might be used to hunt down targets in areas where bombing was not appropriate.

Pentagon planners will no doubt have seen other recent reports suggesting that the Taleban have begun to implement a policy of arming civilians in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

The Taleban says the move is being made to prepare for American ground attacks.

Strategy unchanged

Overall, the balance of Taleban and Northern Alliance forces does not appear to have shifted a great deal since US air strikes began more than two weeks ago.

Strikes against Taleban front line positions, around Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, have been welcomed by Northern Alliance commanders, but have yet to make a decisive impact. Alliance officials speak of the need for greater co-ordination.

At the Pentagon, the message remains: Where US and Northern Alliance interests coincide, we're only too glad to be of assistance, but our objective is still the destruction of Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

The latest reports from front-line positions north of Kabul would appear to illustrate the policy. American jets have apparently dropped bombs on Arab and Pakistani fighters, but left Afghan Taleban positions untouched.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Fergal Keane
reports on how the Taleban are hiding in towns in Southern Afghanistan
See also:

24 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghans discuss political future
24 Oct 01 | South Asia
Pakistan rejects militants' bodies
23 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: The tough battle for Mazar
23 Oct 01 | UK
UK ponders troop deployment
16 Oct 01 | Americas
Why bombing can go wrong
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