US jets open up new front as assault intensifies

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Mushroom clouds of black smoke rose from the hills of northern Afghanistan as allied jets opened a new front yesterday. Northern Alliance opposition fighters watched impassively from rusting Russian tanks dug into the dusty ruins of a hill fort built by Alexander the Great.

The explosions echoing from the line of hills across the river, three miles away, were what the Northern Alliance had been waiting for. For weeks, the Alliance has been planning a major offensive to capture the north of the country, and anxious commanders have been privately asking when the Americans were going to help.

Yesterday, at last, US help arrived – it was the first time Allied jets had bombed the front line here, and Mamur Hassan, a local commander, said the offensive would now begin.

The first bombs fell at 10.30am local time. When the bombers came, they were invisible above the clouds. The only sign of their presence was the shriek of their engines.

They came in repeated sorties all day. Once a cluster bomb sent smoke rising along the crest of the hill. Another bomb sent a few flames into the sky.

This is a forgotten corner of Afghanistan, of towns built from mud that don't even make it on to the map. But beyond the Taliban positions on the hills opposite lies territory which would allow the Northern Alliance to link up with its fighters across the north. Their aim is to control the whole of Afghanistan north of the Hindu Kush.

That would give the US and its allies access to the main northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, possible air bases, and the paved road north to Uzbekistan to bring in aid.

It is here that the US now appears to believe the Northern Alliance can be of use. Further south, Washington is nervous of fracturing Afghanistan along ethnic lines if it helps the Northern Alliance capture the capital, Kabul – but the ethnic mosaic of the north is the land of the Alliance minorities.

"The Americans have their plans and we have ours. We will go ahead with our offensive here regardless of what they do," said General Abdul Ghatoor. But the Northern Alliance has been trying to capture this territory for years. Watching the bombs fall from the turret of his tank, Daz Mohammed said he had been dug into the same position for two and a half years.

Three times, he said, they had advanced. Three times, they had been pushed back to where they started. His proudest boast was that they had once advanced five miles.

There has been speculation about an imminent offensive here for weeks, but nothing had happened. Before yesterday's bombs, Northern Alliance officials were long-faced and morose. There was bad news from Mazar-i-Sharif, where some of their allies were captured and killed by the Taliban.

But when the US bombs finally arrived, Daz Mohammed's face grew longer than ever. The fighters were reluctant to say what was wrong, but it transpired that one of the first salvo of bombs had fallen in Northern Alliance territory. Fighters nervously talked into their radios. Everybody had heard about the bombs that went astray north of Kabul, killing civilians in Alliance territory.

But the word came that no one had been injured, and the next salvo of bombs was accurate. The fighters broke out in grins as they saw bombs fall exactly on Taliban positions, sketching maps in the dust to show where they were.

Then they started up the ageing tanks behind the fort, firing shells that roared directly over our heads, slapping into the Taliban positions with puffs of smoke that seemed tiny beside the US bombs. "We are going home," said Nurullah Pahlewan. His home, Jowz Jan, is far away, east of Mazar. "We are together, the Americans and us. We are both fighting terrorism."

What remains to be seen is whether the promised offensive gets under way – and how far Daz Mohammed will be able to move his tank this time.