Taliban army seals fate of siege city

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The Independent Online
IN THE end it was a typically Afghan victory. With the defenders of Mazar-e-Sharif split by bloody factional squabbling, it was easy for the Taliban army to persuade two commanders to change sides and, like figures in classical mythology, open the gates to the city to the besiegers.

Though spokesmen for the Northern Alliance were claiming yesterday that the city - the only major town held by the opposition - had yet to fall entirely to the Taliban, their victory looked complete.

Taliban troops were reported to be pressing north towards the strategic port town of Hairatan, on the Oxus, and south towards the bases of the Northern Alliance's Hizbe-e Wahadat faction in Bamyan province. Some sporadic fighting was reported in Mazar itself but independent sources confirmed the Taliban's claim that most of the city was quiet, that all the major strategic sites, including the vital airport, were in their hands and that 300 captured Taliban fighters, held in Mazar, had been released.

The Taliban felt sufficiently confident of the situation in the north to launch a new attack yesterday on the Northern Alliance's position's 15 miles north of Kabul. The results of the day's fighting, which involved tanks and heavy weapons, were unclear.

The Taliban's claims of significant advances were denied by the opposition, which said that at least one Taliban tank had been blown up by a land mine and the attack repulsed. Last night artillery fire along the frontline was continuing.

Mazar-e-Sharif, which was the headquarters of the Northern Alliance, has fallen to the Taliban twice before. In May last year a commander switched sides and allowed thousands of Taliban troops into the city. He then reverted to his original allegiance and the Taliban occupying force was massacred. In September a second Taliban force took most of the city again before being ejected after several days of street fighting.

This time, however, experts agree the Taliban, made wary by previous experiences, are in a far stronger position. A campaign which has taken them 200 miles across the north-western plains of Afghanistan in under a month appears not to have over-extended their supply lines and has gained them airstrips from where their jets have been able to provide critical support. The situation of the Northern Alliance, now led by the veteran commander Ahmed Shah Masood, is looking very weak.

With Mazar and most of Afghanistan's northern and western border in Taliban hands, their main supply routes have been cut and crucial airstrips lost. Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the three countries which have been providing the most of the Northern Alliance's munitions, weapons and funds, will now find it hard to maintain the same level of support.

However, given the way Afghanistan is split, the continued involvement of all three nations, as well as several other regional powers, is assured and fighting is likely to continue. The Taliban represent the majority of Afghans - Sunni Muslims from Pathan tribes.

So it has attracted the support of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both Sunni states with strong hardline Islamic lobbies. Pakistan has a substantial number of ethnic Pathans living within its borders.

The Northern Alliance comprises Afghanistan's ethnic and religious minorities such as Shia Muslims and Afghans of Tajik and Uzbek descent.

Iran, which is effectively run by Shia Muslim clerics, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have become increasingly involved in the war with the rise of the Taliban.

Iran is worried by developments and has been calling for a negotiated settlement. At the weekend the Iranian Foreign Minister implicitly attacked Pakistani and Saudi Arabian involvement, saying his country could not "allow the region's security to be jeopardised by the ambitions of other countries."

Russia has made clear its concerns by sending reinforcements to boost the 20,000 Russian troops already stationed in Tajikistan watching the border. Over the weekend the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister told the Taliban that Moscow will take steps to protect the southern borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Neither are the Tajiks nor the Uzbeks merely acting out of ethnic solidarity. Uzbekistan's hardline President Islam Karimov, and the Tajik President, Imomali Rakhmanov, have accused the Taliban and Pakistan of allowing Islamic militants who are active in Central Asia to be trained on their soil. In Tajikistan a peace is holding after years of civil war between Muslim militants and the secular government. Both countries fear Taliban forces will attempt to link up with home-grown Islamic militant movements.