- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 11, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan The Taliban acknowledged yesterday that it lost the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and an opposition commander said anti-Taliban forces quickly seized three northern provincial capitals Shibarghan in Jozjan province; Aybak in Samangan province; and Maimana in Faryab province.
There was no comment from the Taliban on the claims by Mohammed Mohaqik, opposition commander of the Shi'ite faction. However, taking Aybak would cut the main escape route for Taliban soldiers withdrawing from Mazar-e-Sharif to Kabul.
If the other northern towns have also fallen, the Taliban may be abandoning large swaths of territory populated by ethnic minorities and redeploying their forces to defend Kabul and other strongholds of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group.
"This morning the city is quiet," Karim Khalili, spokesman for the Shi'ite Muslim opposition, said of Mazar-e-Sharif. "There is no fighting. All the Taliban are gone."
Residents sacrificed sheep yesterday to celebrate the defeat of the Taliban in the northern Afghan city, and its latest conquerors vowed not to force women to wear veils, a representative of the opposition Northern Alliance said.
The capture of Mazar-e-Sharif was the biggest success since President Bush launched airstrikes Oct. 7 to force the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
With Mazar-e-Sharif in opposition hands, the U.S.-led coalition can open a land bridge to Uzbekistan, 45 miles to the north, to rush in humanitarian goods and military supplies to anti-Taliban forces.
Mazar-e-Sharif also has a large airport that could be refurbished for American and allied aircraft to conduct humanitarian missions and mount attacks against the Taliban from within Afghanistan.
Following the Taliban withdrawal from the city, opposition officials said hundreds of Arab and Pakistani volunteers fighting with the Islamic militia had holed up in a school six miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Mr. Mohaqik said anti-Taliban forces overran the school, captured 50 Pakistanis and Arabs and killed another 1,000 of them. Earlier another Shi'ite Muslim spokesman, Saeed Zaher Wasik, said the opposition wanted to take the captives alive.
The report could not be confirmed, and the Taliban denied it. Abdul Hanan Hemat, chief of the Taliban-controlled Bakhtar News Agency, said there are no troops under siege and that the bulk of the Taliban forces had withdrawn to Samangan province east of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Mr. Hemat also said the Taliban withdrew from Mazar-e-Sharif under orders from the Defense Ministry to save the soldiers and the city.
"We did not want to risk our soldiers or have the city destroyed, so we left," he said. "But our morale is high. Losing Mazar-e-Sharif has not damaged our spirit."
He said the opposition would have been unable to take the city had it not been for a week of relentless bombing by U.S. jets.
The fall of the strategic city boosted opposition morale on the other main front, about 30 miles north of Kabul. American B-52 bombers and other warplanes attacked there yesterday, and enormous clouds of smoke billowed skyward from Taliban positions.
Capitalizing on their victory, anti-Taliban troops also took control of Hairatan on the Afghan border with Uzbekistan, said Mohammed Abil, a spokesman for Burhanuddin Rabbani, the titular head of the Afghan opposition.
Mr. Abil said opposition soldiers had also taken Taliban mountaintop positions overlooking Taloqan, the capital of northeast Takhar province and the headquarters of the anti-Taliban alliance until it fell to Taliban troops in September 2000.
The residents of Mazar-e-Sharif warmly greeted triumphant alliance fighters when they entered the city, said Mohammed Hasham Saad, the top opposition official in Uzbekistan. Most people in the city, along with the majority of Northern Alliance soldiers, are ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks.
"They helped our forces move inside of the city and gave them food and information," Mr. Saad said. Some civilians pointed out Taliban positions to alliance fighters, he said.
He said Radio Mazar-e-Sharif had begun broadcasting and that one of the first messages to the people was from Mr. Rabbani, the former Afghan president who was ousted by the Taliban in 1996.
In Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the Northern Alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah, said the Taliban had left 20 tanks and many heavy weapons behind. At least 20 Taliban fighters were killed and hundreds were taken prisoner, he said.
Anti-Taliban troops at the front were cheered by the news of the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, which changed hands several times in the late 1990s and was the site of massacres. Villagers crowded around transistor radios to hear the latest news.
"This is the beginning of the collapse of the Taliban," said Nur Agha, a 22-year-old fighter.
Mohammed Afzal Amon, the commander of the opposition's elite Zarbati troops north of Kabul, said 600 troops had been sent to his area since the victory in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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