Fall of Afghan city could spell end for Kabul

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The balance of power in Afghanistan's 18-year civil war may have tilted decisively following the reported fall yesterday of Jalallabad, the country's main eastern town, to the rebel Taliban militia.

A Taliban commander told Afghan Islamic Press, a news service based in Pakistan, that the rebels had taken Jalallabad, capital of Nangarhar province, and its airport from forces loyal to President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The news service said this had been confirmed by its sources in Jalallabad. Earlier, a government spokesman admitted the airport had fallen and that fighting was raging in the town, 60 miles from Kabul.

The seizure of Jalallabad by Taliban, which controls nearly half Afghanistan, would tighten the encirclement of Mr Rabbani's government. The next target is likely to be Sarobi, the main town between Jalallabad and the capital. It is a stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who besieged Kabul for more than a year before joining forces with Mr Rabbani after the Taliban's appearance on the scene.

Jalallabad had escaped the devastation suffered by most of Afghanistan's towns by remaining out of the fighting among the movements which drove out the Communist regime in 1992. A coalition of factions ruled the area, whose relative stability attracted refugees from other parts of Afghanistan. Kabul's forces moved into the town to try to head off the Taliban advance, but apparently too late.The Taliban, which has besieged Kabul for the past year, has pledged to install a purist Islamic order throughout Afghanistan.

Pakistan denies helping the Taliban and says it has no favourites among the Afghan factions, most of which it helped during their war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Before the battle for the town began, an apparent peace mission ended in the death of the Nangarhar governor, Engineer Mahmood, and six colleagues, shot dead while driving towards the Pakistan border.

AIP said the group seemed to be heading for peace talks with Taliban leaders. There was no immediate information who was responsible. Mahmood, a commander of the neutral Hezb-i-Islami faction of Maulvi Mohammad Younis Khalis, died hours after he had been appointed acting governor of Nangarhar. A Taliban source in the north-western Pakistani town of Peshawar, who did not want to be identified, said Mahmood had been in contact with the Taliban and had wanted to hand over Jalallabad peacefully to the Islamic militia.