- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 10, 2001

Afghan opposition forces captured the strategic northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif yesterday as U.S. airstrikes pounded nearby Taliban positions, Taliban Defense Minister Obaidullah Akhund confirmed today.
"Yes, Mazar has gone," he told Reuters.
"The city and its airport are with the opposition. Our forces are in Tangi Tashgurghan," he said, referring to a town 40 miles east of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The opposition said today it also had taken the whole of Sar-i-Pol province to the south of Mazar-e-Sharif and the town of Hairatan on the Amu Darya River that marks Afghanistan's northern border.
"The border is still closed, but we hope to open it shortly," said opposition interior minister Yunis Qanuni. Hairatan lies just across the river from the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
The Pentagon yesterday had called the advances by the opposition "encouraging" but declined to declare the action a victory for the anti-Taliban alliance.
The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif is expected to be a major step forward in U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban regime. Numerous Taliban military forces are expected to defect to the alliance after the city falls to the opposition, a second U.S. official said.
The ancient city straddles major supply routes between Uzbekistan and the Afghan capital, Kabul, and its loss marks the first major blow to the Taliban in 35 days of U.S. attacks.
The Afghan Islamic Press stated that the move came amid "heavy American bombing" and that Taliban forces were regrouping outside the city.
The advance on Mazar-e-Sharif appeared to be part of a coordinated push by the Northern Alliance.
In the west, forces of warlord Ismail Khan, a veteran anti-Taliban leader, had moved to within 12 miles of the key western city of Heart, according to press reports from the region.
Other reports from Afghanistan said opposition forces, equipped with tanks and armored vehicles, were massing north of Kabul and were set to advance on the capital.
The second U.S. official said forces under the command of Gen. Rashid Dostum, a top Northern Alliance leader, were pursuing retreating Taliban forces in the direction of Sheberghan, northwest of Mazar-e-Sharif.
This official said U.S. Special Forces teams assisting the opposition forces by helping direct airstrikes played a key role in the successful advance on Mazar-e-Sharif. The teams were able to direct U.S. bombing strikes against Taliban forces in key locations.
Gen. Dostum said in a television interview yesterday that the alliance forces had overrun the city in a half-hour, Associated Press reported from Kabul.
"We have taken Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban troops have fled. The only Taliban left behind are the prisoners we have taken. We have full control of the town. The airport is in our hands, too," Gen. Dostum said in an interview with CNN Turk.
The battle for Mazar-e-Sharif was won with more than 1,000 opposition troops mounted on horseback, many of them armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, according to Philip Smith, a Washington spokesman for Gen. Dostum's Uzbek rebel militia.
Gen. Dostum's force of 9,000 regular and irregular troops, which included ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras, met only "isolated sniping no organized resistance" once they entered the city, Mr. Smith said the general told him in a satellite phone call.
Gen. Dostum aims to prevent the Taliban from regrouping and mounting a counterattack on the city, whose blue-domed mosque a gem of Afghan architecture had not been damaged, Mr. Smith said.
Meanwhile, a top al Qaeda commander said the terrorist network has not been destroyed.
"[President] Bush lies to his people when he claims to have destroyed the al Qaeda group and broken the ranks of the Taliban. The whole world laughs at his lies," Ayman Zawahri said in a television broadcast on the Qatari station Al Jazeera.
Mr. Bush said in a speech Thursday that U.S. airstrikes had destroyed al Qaeda terrorist training camps and disrupted communications. He did not say the group had been destroyed.
Zawahri, an Egyptian-born al Qaeda leader, said, "The Palestinian issue, or more precisely, the Israeli-American crime in Palestine, will remain the axis of the conflict in the Muslim heartland, and the motive behind the holy struggle of Muslims against America."
The terrorist commander appeared in the video with an assault rifle propped next to his shoulder and wearing white robes and a turban as he read from a paper.
Victoria Clarke, assistant defense secretary for public affairs, said the fall of the town to the Northern Alliance forces "could facilitate a land bridge to Uzbekistan" for humanitarian and military supplies.
"Until things settle and we see where forces are after a day or two, our inclination is to withhold comment. What we have seen is encouraging," she said.
"[A]s we look at the battle or battles, as they're occurring right now, they're obviously in progress. And it's hard to tell what is the likely outcome, based on the battle as you see it for the moment," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff.
Similar battles are now taking place near the capital city of Kabul, another front between Northern Alliance and Taliban troops, Adm. Stufflebeem said.
The Pentagon is receiving conflicting reports of some Taliban forces retreating from Mazar-e-Sharif and of others putting up stiff resistance, Adm. Stufflebeem said.
Adm. Stufflebeem said bombing strikes Thursday were carried out primarily in support of opposition forces and were aimed at "preparing the battlefield for future offensive actions by these forces."

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