Opposition factions join forces for city assault

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The Independent Online

Factions of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance are planning to link their forces in a renewed bid to drive the Taliban out of Mazar-i-Sharif, the country's main northern city, a frontline commander said yesterday.

Two groups of fighters loyal to local warlords are seeking to reinforce the Uzbek commander, Abdul Rashid Dostam, who has returned from exile to lead his Soviet-trained force in an attempt to recapture his former fiefdom. He ruled Mazar-i-Sharif as the capital of a mini-state until the Taliban ousted him in 1998.

American aircraft are reported to have bombarded Taliban positions in the city this week in support of the opposition forces. Although it has refrained from similar action against Taliban forces blocking a Northern Alliance advance into the capital, the US-led coalition is eager to take control of Mazar-i-Sharif's extensive military facilities, which would give it a secure base on Afghan soil for the first time.

Years of skirmishes around Mazar-i-Sharif have solidified into a series of more focused assaults in the past few days. Ustad Attah, a frontline commander of the forces besieging the city, said by satellite telephone yesterday that his men were within three miles of Mazar's airport, and were planning to link up with other elements of the opposition.

"Yesterday evening, the Taliban tried to attack us six times in order to gain back the positions they lost to us three days ago, but they could not break through," Mr Attah said.

Leaders of the Northern Alliance, who have fought the Taliban since its birth in 1994, said on Tuesday that three districts of Mazar-i-Sharif were under their control, about four miles from the centre of the city. Earlier advances by the alliance appear to have been beaten back, however, and yesterday the Taliban insisted the alliance's claims were "totally wrong". Late on Wednesday, the Taliban said it had repulsed an opposition offensive, and countered with an attack that sent Northern Alliance forces "fleeing in disarray".

Amid the claims and counter-claims, it is clear that fighting around Mazar-i-Sharif has intensified. But closer American air support may be required to enable the alliance to conquer a Taliban garrison whose members are fighting for their lives. If the city falls, they will be cut off, hundreds of miles from the movement's southern heartland.

The capture of Mazar-i-Sharif, not far from the border with Uzbekistan and site of the blue-tiled, high-domed shrine of Hazrat Ali, could provide a way for the opposition to open supply routes south towards Kabul.

The opposition is saying that the first phase of the war against the Taliban is complete, and that the Northern Alliance will co-ordinate attacks with the United States.

The US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage said yesterday that Taliban fighters and commanders had defected to the Northern Alliance. But he was unable to confirm reports that the Taliban Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, had defected in what could have been a Pakistani intelligence operation.

General Dostam lost Mazar-i-Sharif to the Taliban in battles that were among the bloodiest of recent years in Afghanistan.

At the height of his power, he ran a mini-state whose well-equipped army kept the Taliban and its strict Islamic morals at bay. He drove an armoured Cadillac and vowed he would not bow to a government that banned whisky and music, but the general, who has switched sides many times in Afghanistan's two decades of war, was himself betrayed by an associate who handed the city over to the Taliban.

As soon as the movement entered the city it massacred nearly 30 Iranian diplomats, bringing Afghanistan close to war with Iran.