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Tuesday, 4 December, 2001, 06:14 GMT
US targets last Taleban stronghold
US marines HUMVEEs make their way through the sand
US marines are building their presence on the ground
US warplanes have continued to target the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, amid reports that opposition groups are closing on the city.

US B-52 bombers dropped their loads over Kandahar and to the south-east of Jalalabad, targeting cave systems where some reports have suggested that Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda leadership could be hiding.


Southern opposition groups both north and south of the city are consolidating power

Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem

Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the situation around Kandahar remained "fluid".

"Southern opposition groups both north and south of the city are consolidating power. These opposition leaders are in contact with some of the Taleban factions and are still negotiating the release of the city to the southern opposition groups.

"There are (Taleban) forces that we are seeing digging in that would intend, obviously, to stay and fight, and those are probably non-Afghanistanis," he said.

Click here for map of the battlegrounds

Reports from Kandahar talked of heavy fighting between Taleban forces and Afghan opposition groups around the airport, to the east of the city.

A spokesman for opposition commander Gul Agha, a former governor of Kandahar, said his fighters had entered the airport about 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the city and were engaged in a fierce battle for the main terminal.

Refugees on Pakistan-Afghan border at Chaman
Thousands have fled the city
Other troops loyal to the Pashtun leader Hamid Karzai are reported to have taken the district of Khakriz, north of the city. Neither report has been confirmed independently.

The United Nations says the intensification of the US bombing campaign was forcing thousands of refugees to flee the city.

A spokesman for the UN refugee agency, Peter Kessler, said an estimated 8,000 Afghans had gone to the Pakistan border since the conflict intensified last week.

Many of those reaching the border have spoken of growing chaos and confusion in Kandahar as well as along the roads leading east towards Pakistan.

However, accurate and up-to-date information about the situation is very difficult to obtain, as foreign journalists are not being allowed to enter the area.

Ground force

About 1,000 US marines are now in place at a desert airfield 120 kilometres from Kandahar.

US Captain David Romley said the marines had significantly increased their firepower in the area.

They have been flying in more armoured vehicles with anti-tank weapons, and using Harrier aircraft to hit undisclosed targets.

As well as Kandahar, the key border town of Spin Boldak remains in Taleban hands.

Anti-Taleban forces say they have been holding talks with the Taleban about handing over control of Spin Boldak, but there has been no indication of any progress.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press has reported that 20 US commandos have been flown to mountains near the eastern city of Jalalabad, to mount a search for Bin Laden in the Tora Bora caves.

A US spokesman confirmed coalition forces were in the area, but gave no further details.




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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Peter Greste
"Their worst enemy has been the environment"
The BBC's Stephen Sackur in Washington
"The Americans seem confident they're getting closer to Osama bin Laden"
See also:

04 Dec 01 | South Asia
US denies bombing civilians
03 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
Coalition troops 'prepare Tajik bases'
02 Dec 01 | South Asia
Taleban told 'surrender or die'
03 Dec 01 | South Asia
In pictures: Afghan refugee misery
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