Afghan opposition says it captured district outside key northern city

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The Independent Online

Opposition forces claimed the capture of several towns Tuesday near the strategic northern city of Mazar–e–Sharif, after US warplanes cleared the way with intensive bombing.

The opposition northern alliance, which launched a three–pronged attack Sunday toward Mazar–e–Sharif, seized Ogopruk and two other towns in a pre–dawn assault, said Ashraf Nadeem, an opposition spokesman. The area is 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Mazar–e–Sharif.

"We attacked while the Americans were bombing," Nadeem said in a satellite telephone interview. "It was not only us who killed. It was mostly the Americans."

Some 200 Taliban defenders died, Nadeem said. His account could not be independently verified. Both sides often exaggerate battlefield claims.

Nadeem said the alliance also captured 10 artillery pieces. The reported seizure of Ogopruk came one day after the capture of Zaray, a district in the same area. The opposition, which is outgunned by the Taliban, has received ammunition and other military supplies from the United States.

The Taliban have reinforced their front lines with 400 fresh troops, including Arab and Pakistani volunteers, Nadeem said.

Despite the latest successes claimed by the opposition, they have not been able to make major advances toward Mazar–e–Sharif, and remain well south of the city with winter closing in.

American military planners want the Afghan opposition, a loose coalition of fighters dominated by ethnic minority Tajiks and Uzbeks, to make significant gains ahead of winter. Fighting traditionally tapers off then because snow closes roads and hampers the resupply of troops.

U.S. jets have been pounding Taliban positions defending Mazar–e–Sharif throughout the air campaign, now in its fifth week.

Mazar–e–Sharif is an important northern crossroads that the rebels lost to the Taliban in 1998. Retaking it would open a major supply route for the northern alliance to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Also, U.S. jets bombarded the Taliban at another front line north of the capital, Kabul, in an effort to soften up defenses ahead of a planned advance by the northern alliance.

U.S. jets killed four people and wounded six in Kargah, 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Kabul, according to the Taliban–run Bakhtar News Agency. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Shots rang out Tuesday on each side of the front north of Kabul.

Beyond a row of abandoned buildings, Taliban soldiers in baggy shirts and pants could be seen pacing, Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders.

Zaubet, a 19–year–old opposition fighter, said he had seen the Taliban bringing in men and supplies in Datsun pickup trucks in the past few days.

Meanwhile, a small group of American military personnel is in Tajikistan assessing the possibility of using at least three bases there to expand the U.S. bombing campaign and strengthen support for Afghan opposition forces.

Bases in Tajikistan would shorten the time it takes U.S. pilots to reach their targets. Most of the attack planes now come from ships in the Arabian Sea or airfields outside the region.

U.S. officials have confirmed sending more special troops into Afghanistan to help coordinate air strikes and provide other assistance to the opposition.

As part of that effort, a team of five U.S. military personnel landed at a new airstrip in Golbahar, not far from the Kabul front line, "to help coordinate efforts in the war," said opposition interior minister Yunis Qanoni.

He said the men arrived Sunday from Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe in a small twin–engine plane. They were expected to study the new dirt landing strip to see if it's ready to handle supplies.

The supply route for the northern alliance, which snakes through the formidable mountains from neighboring Tajikistan to the north, has already been snowed over.

President George W. Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the ruling Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden for his alleged role in the September terrorist attacks that killed 4,500 people in the United States.

In Kabul on Monday, Taliban chief spokesman Amir Khan Muttaqi said the Islamic militia was "preparing for a long war" and challenged the United States to send ground troops to Afghanistan "to fight us face to face."

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who wrapped up a tour of central and south Asia on Monday, said the military operation in Afghanistan was becoming more effective and would not take years to complete.

With more U.S. military teams on the ground in Afghanistan to direct aircraft, "the effectiveness of bombing is improving every day," he said.

U.S. officials, however, have said the campaign against terrorism is global and could last well after the eventual end of fighting in Afghanistan.

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