Islamic militia seize last Afghan stronghold

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Mazar-E-Sharif, Afghanistan - Tanks flying the white Taliban flag rolled into the stronghold of the northern warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostam, yesterday, crumbling the last defences against the Islamic army's three-year sweep of Afghanistan.

With the Taliban in control of the ancient city of Mazar-e-Sharif, the country's second largest, Afghanistan was virtually united under one regime for the first time since the Soviet army left in 1989, barring a few pockets of resistance.

Taliban soldiers fired their sub-machine-guns at giant posters of General Dostam - who fled to neighbouring Uzbekistan - and ripped them down from traffic posts, pillars and public buildings. As the remnants of the northern army escaped towards Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, about 35 miles to the north, their conquerors chanted, "God is great." On the lead tank was General Malik Pahlawan, General Dostam's second-in-command whose defection last week to the Taliban marked the beginning of his chief's downfall.

The Taliban victory was a boost to Pakistan, which had sponsored its creation from the chaos of feuding Afghan militias following the removal of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992. But the proximity of the movement will cause apprehension in the Central Asian republics to the north, which had supported General Dostam in the hope he would shield their Muslim populations from the Taliban's radical Islamic influence.

The only provinces left outside Taliban control were Takhar, parts of Kunduz and Baghlan, and the north-western province of Badakhshan, which was held by Ahmed Shah Massoud, the defence chief of the government ousted from Kabul last year.

The Taliban, which grew out of Afghan refugee camps, began its march across Afghanistan from the south, reaching Kabul last September. In the areas they control, they bar women from working, ban alcohol and most light entertainment, and force men to pray in the mosques. Until yesterday Mazar-e-Sharif was the only major city in Afghanistan where a woman could walk in the street without being veiled from head to foot.

As the Taliban forces approached Mazar-e-Sharif, panic spread through the city. Hundreds of people clogged the streets trying to flee. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms seized cars at gunpoint to escape, and officers turned their tanks and headed for the exits of the city.