Taliban claims victory - again

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THE TALIBAN Islamic militia army appeared last night to have captured Mazar-e-Sharif, the only major city outside its control in Afghanistan. If confirmed, the victory means that almost all the country is under its control and opposition forces are in total disarray.

According to independent sources, about 5,000 Taliban soldiers launched a dawn attack and, after several hours of street fighting, resistance collapsed. Since Friday Taliban aircraft have been bombarding Mazar-e- Sharif, Afghanistan's second largest city, causing heavy casualties among the defenders.

Spokesmen for the opposition to the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, are denying the city has fallen and say fighting is continuing. In recent days the Alliance, particularly the Shia Muslim Hizbe Wahadat faction, poured thousands of troops into the city, and the fight for Mazar was expected to be long and bloody. However, it appears most strategic sites, possibly including the airport, are now in Taliban hands and the white flags of the Islamic militia are flying in large areas of the city.

A Taliban spokesman in Pakistan said the militia was continuing its offensive south of Mazar-e-Sharif towards the bases of the Hizbe Wahadat in central Afghanistan, and claimed that the leaders of the Northern Alliance had fled with their troops.

He said the Taliban hoped the capture of Mazar would make the international community "face reality", and recognise its government in Afghanistan, so far recognised only by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Even if the Taliban's victory is confirmed it may not be able to hold on to its gains. It captured the city twice last year and on both occasions was forced to withdraw after suffering heavy losses.