Uzbeks seek their own vengeance for killing of Massood

Civil War
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Fierce fighting raged across northern Afghanistan yesterday as opposition forces took advantage of the threat of US strikes against the Talibaban to avenge the assassination of their leader.

The opposition Northern Alliance, headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, reported the capture of several Taliban posts and dozens of villages in Samangan province.

Of far more potential significance, however, was news that the leader of Afghanistan's Uzbek minority, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, had also joined the fray. The Uzbek warlord was said by his aides to have concentrated a "huge" force in the north, with the aim of capturing the main town in the region, Mazar-i-Sharif.

The fighting is in response to the killing of the opposition leader, Shah Ahmad Massood, who was fatally wounded by suicide bombers on 9 September – two days before the terror attacks on America.

Yesterday the Taliban, through the voice of their ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, rejected the US demands to hand over the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, who is wanted for his alleged role in the US attacks. At a packed press conference on the front lawn of the embassy – Pakistan is one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban government – Mr Zaeef dispelled any ambiguity about Afghanistan's position after a religious council in Kabul recommended that Mr bin Laden should leave the country. That, he said, was "a suggestion ... and not a decision by a judge".

Expectations of an early attack on Afghanistan were heightened further by the Taliban's defiance.

"We are not ready to hand over Osama bin Laden without evidence," Mr Zaeef said. His deputy, Suhail Shaheen, later said that extraditing him to the US would be "impossible" and "an insult to Islam".

Mr Zaeef said it was still possible that Mr bin Laden might voluntarily leave Afghanistan. The religious council's decision was that he should be "persuaded to leave".

The ambassador added that he had no information on Mr bin Laden's current whereabouts, although the Taliban leadership says it is able to keep in touch with him through radio communication with Taliban security personnel attached to him.