Defeated army pursued into the mountains

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The Independent Online
Kabul - Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban militia swept northward in relentless pursuit of the country's former government forces yesterday, claiming victory over key towns and a province north of the capital Kabul. The Taliban now control threequarters of the country.

Taliban fighters said they had bottled up the former defence minister, Ahmad Shah Masood, in his Panjsher valley stronghold following a two- pronged advance overnight. The militia was halted at the village of Golbahar at the mouth of the narrow gorge leading into Panjsher, fighters said. They were awaiting orders on whether to assault the valley - one of the few areas still under the control of the government.

A second prong pushed north from Jabal os-Siraj, up the Salang highway that runs north from Kabul into central Asia, where they confronted the northern warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum. General Dostum has moved significant forces into the area north of the Salang tunnel, which crosses the Hindu Kush mountain range.

The Taliban were reported to have asked the forces of General Dostum to allow their fighters passage into the north, but the demand was said to have been rejected. It was not immediately clear whether the Taliban wanted the passage through the Salang Highway to attack some northern provinces still held by forces loyal to the ousted president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, or wanted to capture Dostum's territory. Dostum has so far stayed away from the fighting between Taliban and the former Kabul government, which he also opposed.

Taliban sources said that Kapisa province to the east of Golbahar and its capital Mahmud-i-Raqi had also fallen to the militia yesterday. Mohammad Gul, deputy Taliban commander of a military barracks near Kabul, said: "We intend to capture all the former government areas, including the Salang tunnel and the Panjsher," he said.

It was not immediately clear how easy it would be for the Taliban to capture the valley, held by Masood's men throughout the 1980s against several major assaults by Soviet troops backing Kabul's then-communist government. The speed of his retreat - from Kabul to the valley in just three days - seemed to have dismayed the Tajik people he leads. "We just don't know what's happening. We don't know whether Masood has a plan or is just running," said one ethnic Tajik shopkeeper in Golbahar.