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Saturday, 10 November, 2001, 01:16 GMT
Afghan opposition 'capture' key city
Opposition fighter
If confirmed, it would be a significant victory
Afghanistan's opposition Northern Alliance say they have captured the strategically important northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

There's a lot of dust in the air right now and it's very hard to tell exactly what's going on

Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem

The claim has not been independently confirmed. If true, it would represent a major victory in the American-led campaign and the first significant defeat for the Taleban.

A prominent opposition general, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, told the BBC that he and other Northern Alliance commanders were inside the city. He said their forces had encountered fierce resistance from the Taleban.

Northern Alliance commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum
General Dostum: claims to control Mazar-e-Sharif

But US Defense Department officials in Washington said the situation around Mazar-e-Sharif remained fluid and confusing.

"There are skirmishes happening across these various fronts," said a Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem. "There obviously are a number of groups that are engaged, more than one."

In other developments:

  • US investigators find anthrax in four New Jersey post offices only days after a top official says the attacks appear to be over
  • King Abdullah of Jordan says US attacks on Afghanistan should continue until Washington achieves its military objectives despite Muslim reservations about bombing during Ramadan
  • Police in Pakistan shoot dead four pro-Taleban protesters
  • President George W Bush says the coalition against terror is now stronger than ever, after talks with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee
  • A leading figure in the al-Qaeda network, Ayman al-Zawihiri, tells al-Jazeera television that Osama Bin Laden's and the ruling Taleban's forces remain intact
  • The Saudi foreign minister hits out at what he calls the Bush administration's reluctance to break the deadlock in the Middle East
  • BBC journalists allowed into the Afghan capital by the Taleban report seeing huge supplies of food by the roadside and say Kabul is relatively quiet

General Dostum said the Taleban had fled from Mazar-e-Sharif as opposition forces broke through their front-lines, devastated by heavy American bombing.

"The only Taleban left here are our prisoners," said the general, who once ran Mazar-e-Sharif - the site of terrible massacres in the 1990s - as a personal fiefdom. "We have full control of the town."

Importance of Mazar-e-Sharif
Airport could be used as US base
Good road link to Uzbekistan
Military garrisons contain arms and ammunition
Centre of wheat production
Controls natural gas that supplies energy to northern Afghanistan
But BBC correspondents in the region advise caution over the Northern Alliance's claim, saying their forces came close to Mazar-e-Sharif several weeks ago, but then had to withdraw.

And military analysts warned that, even if the report is true, it could be a tactical retreat by the Taleban.

General Dostum said the opposition had also taken the town of Hairaton on the border with Uzbekistan, a claim which could not be independently verified.

Washington has said that if the opposition controls Mazar-e-Sharif, it will be easier to step up humanitarian aid to hungry Afghans during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in about a week.

Northern Alliance commanders said their troops were massing just north of the capital, Kabul, in preparation for an expected advance on Taleban front lines there.

They said the next push would be towards Kabul.

The Northern Alliance has promised not to march into the capital, saying it would halt its advance just outside the city to limit bloodshed.

  • Northern Alliance claims to overrun Mazar-e-Sharif airport
  • Alliance says its fighters broke through Taleban lines to south and west of city
  • Alliance says its fighters moved through city by neighbourhood, encountering pockets of fierce resistance
  • Earlier, the Taleban said they had repulsed the Northern Alliance offensive on Mazar-e-Sharif.

    Its capture by the opposition would open a land corridor from Uzbekistan - which supports the United States - into central Afghanistan. It would also cut off Taleban forces in the north of the country.

    A BBC correspondent in Kabul said the capital was calm on Friday despite heavy bombing to the north of the city.

    He said there was no sign that the Taleban authorities were about to collapse and that they remained defiant.

    The BBC's Nick Ravenscroft
    "A major breakthrough for the Allied Forces"
    The BBC's Adam Mynott
    "There's little doubt that the Northern Alliance are in control of the city"
    Dr Martin Navias, defence analyst
    "It has both psychological and military significance"
    See also:

    24 Oct 01 | South Asia
    Pakistani militants' bodies returned
    23 Oct 01 | South Asia
    Mazar-e-Sharif's bloody history
    07 Nov 01 | South Asia
    Disaster looms at refugee camps
    09 Nov 01 | Middle East
    Saudi anger at US silence
    25 Sep 01 | South Asia
    Profile: General Rashid Dostum
    09 Nov 01 | South Asia
    Mazar-e-Sharif: Vital target
    09 Nov 01 | Middle East
    Abdullah says bombing must go on
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