Aid staff flee Taliban shells

FOREIGN aid workers and hundreds of Afghan families fled territory controlled by the opposition northern alliance yesterday as the Taliban closed in. Witnesses said the airport in central Bamiyan was shelled during evacuations.

Even as some fled Bamiyan for Kabul and other areas, an aid worker said other displaced Afghans were pouring into Bamiyan from Mazar-e-Sharif, the biggest city in the north, which the anti-Taliban alliance lost on Saturday.

Bamiyan is surrounded by the Taliban, which cut their opponents' only land supply route on Wednesday by capturing Hayratan, 250 miles from Kabul and bordering Central Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

The Iranian news agency (Irna) reported fighting near Hayratan yesterday, and quoted the warlord Rashid Dostum, a member of the anti-Taliban alliance, as saying many Taliban were killed. There was no immediate comment from the Taliban.

The Taliban have in the past four years captured most of the country, including Kabul. They appear on the verge of reaching their goal of uniting Afghanistan under a version of Islam that bars girls from school, confines most women to their homes and bans music, films and television. The Taliban have pledged to restore peace to a country that has been plagued by strife since a series of coups in the 1960s. They have rejected calls for peace talks, intent on pursuing a military solution.

A spokesman of the Hezbe-Wahadat militia, a partner in the anti-Taliban alliance that has its stronghold in Bamiyan, said civilian areas were hit yesterday by Taliban bombing in a town 90 miles from Bamiyan. Two civilians were killed.

Refugees arriving in Kabul from Bamiyan said the Taliban shelled the town's airport as a Red Cross evacuation aircraft sat on the runway. There was no independent confirmation of the report.

Burhanuddin Rabbani, the president the Taliban ousted from Kabul with his military chief, Ahmed Shah Masood, in 1996, said yesterday that a guerrilla war against the Taliban would continue, Irna reported.

"We will continue fighting off the Taliban," Mr Rabbani was quoted as saying from the northern Badakhshan province. "The Taliban might rule by force . . . but they know well that they have no popular base."

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