Fierce fighting centres around northern Afghan city

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The Independent Online

Afghan opposition forces said they were advancing steadily toward the key northern city of Mazar–e–Sharif with the help of round–the–clock US bombing. The ruling Taliban, however, said they pushed back several opposition attacks.

Both sides said fighting was intense south of Mazar–e–Sharif, which the Taliban seized from the opposition northern alliance in 1998. An opposition victory would allow it to open a supply corridor from Uzbekistan, and direct troops toward Taliban strongholds further south.

Still, heavy snowfalls that will clog supply routes are expected in the coming days, and winter could slow any opposition advances.

Also, witnesses said US jets and at least one B–52 bomber dropped dozens of bombs on Taliban lines early Thursday at the front north of the capital, Kabul, where the opposition has yet to launch an offensive.

Huge plumes of smoke billowed from Taliban positions, which did not fire anti–aircraft guns as they have done on past bombing runs. It was unclear whether the guns had been knocked out or whether the Taliban were saving their ammunition. The Pentagon denies Taliban claims that it has shot down some U.S. aircraft, saying it has not lost a single plane or helicopter to hostile fire.

Opposition forces captured the Sayyat district in the most recent fighting near Mazar–e–Sharif, 300 kilometers (186 miles) northwest of the Kabul front, spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said Thursday by satellite telephone.

However, the Taliban said three opposition attacks south of the city failed Wednesday despite heavy U.S. bombing, the Pakistan–based Afghan Islamic Press reported.

Citing an unidentified Taliban spokesman, the agency said the Taliban have lost only one district in recent days, Zaray, and that defensive positions around Mazar–e–Sharif remained strong.

The Taliban's Bakhtar news agency said the northern alliance was still 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Mazar–e–Sharif and that opposition claims that they were within seven kilometers (four miles) were false.

U.S. jets also bombed in eastern Kunar province Wednesday, killing three civilians and injuring six, Bakhtar claimed. An empty school was also flattened, it said.

The reports could not be independently verified. The Pentagon has denied Taliban claims that more than five weeks of bombing have inflicted widespread civilian casualties.

On Wednesday, U.S. special forces reported northern alliance fighters on horseback charged Taliban tanks and armored personnel carriers outside Mazar–e–Sharif.

In Washington, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace said the fighting south of Mazar–e–Sharif was "very fluid" and that the opposition appeared to be making progress. Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that U.S. special forces teams were with opposition forces near Mazar–e–Sharif "to help in directing airstrikes."

For days, the opposition and the Taliban have traded claims about battlefield gains south of Mazar–e–Sharif, but the claims have not been confirmed.

The border with Uzbekistan, about 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Mazar–e–Sharif, is closed, and Western reporters in northern alliance–controlled territory to the east cannot reach the area without crossing Taliban lines.

The opposition said Wednesday that it captured Shol Ghar district south of the city, a claim that Taliban officials denied.

The commander of Shiite Muslim fighters in the alliance, Mohammed Mohaqik, said opposition officers would confer over the next two days on plans to capture the city without incurring large civilian casualties.

Three opposition columns – each led by warlords representing different ethnic groups with competing interests – are moving on Mazar–e–Sharif, and coordination among the different groups has been less than seamless.

President George W. Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the ruling Taliban militia refused to hand over Osama bin Laden for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was in France Thursday on his first international trip since Sept. 11. Musharraf, who planned to also travel to Britain and the United States, supports the U.S.–led anti–terrorism campaign despite opposition from Muslim groups at home.