Ferocious mountain offensive leaves defiant Taliban bloodied

Afghan rebellion: Toppled regime tries to stage fightback with support of powerful neighbour

The new Islamic rulers of Kabul yesterday suffered one of their worst defeats since the Taliban militia began their victorious sweep across Afghanistan nearly two years ago. Forces loyal to the former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, overran several Taliban defences on a key mountain pass linking Kabul to Central Asia. One eyewitness reported seeing at least 30 lorries full of dead and wounded Taliban pass him on the road.

After sweeping into Kabul on 27 September, the Taliban forces had advanced northwards up to the Hindu Kush mountains. They were halted 70 miles out of Kabul in the narrow rocky gorge leading up to the mouth of the Salang tunnel.

A guerrilla commander, Basir Solangi, is reported to have led his men along the high mountain ridges at night and then descended on the Taliban, dug in on the highway. As many as 150 Taliban may have died in the ambush, according to unofficial reports. The guerrilla forces pushed down the Salang road, which threads its way across a cliff-face, and advanced to within eight miles of Jabal-os-Saraj, a strategic crossroad and Taliban headquarter town.

The Taliban were forced to pull reinforcements off a second front, the village of Gulbahar, at the entrance to the Panjshir valley. There, the former defence minister, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and thousands of his well- armed men were holding out against Taliban attack.

Eyewitnesses saw at least eight tanks and armoured cars belonging to the Taliban which rumbled out of Gulbahar and were headed for the Salang battlefield. "The tanks won't do much good. You can't get more than one tank up the Salang road at a time. it's too narrow," said one eyewitness.

Firing rockets and anti- aircraft guns up through the switchback turns of the Salang highway, the Taliban were able to drive back the guerrilla invaders by several kilometres. "It was hard to contain the attacks and the fighting was very serious, but we brought up heavy reinforcements and halted it. We are now in control," said Maulavi Khairulla Haqani, the Taliban's Salang battlefield commander.

But his frontline at Qalatak, 15km (nine miles) north of Jabal-os-Saraj, was 15-20km south of its position before the attack began on Tuesday morning.

Taliban commanders barred journalists from going near the front, so it was impossible to get reliable accounts of who might be winning the battle. Travellers reported that the Taliban were rushing up jeep-loads of fighters and more tanks from Kabul to Jabal-os-Saraj; if the guerrillas pour down the mountains into Jabal-os-Saraj it might even be possible for them to recapture the capital.

Even more worrying for the Taliban is evidence that, for the first time, a powerful warlord of northern Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostam, may have covertly sided with the rebels against the Taliban. Although General Dostam insisted yesterday that his Uzbek forces were remaining neutral, military experts claim that Basir Solangi could have launched his assault only with logistical backing from General Dostam. The general, a former Communist, has a dozen tanks and heavy artillery pieces massed at the mouth of the Salang tunnel.

Mr Rabbani arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif, northern Afghanistan on Tuesday for his first meeting in three years with General Dostam. The former president said his aim was to form a broad-based and united front against the Taliban and he had invited all factions to join him in an effort to reunify the country.

"Our first aim is to restore security to the country and to stop the fighting. We are trying to create understanding and communication among all the ethnic groups," he said.

"This has been told to the Taliban too. If they don't agree then maybe the front will have to make some military and political decisions too."

A spokesman for the ousted prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said Mr Hekmatyar supported efforts to forge an anti-Taliban alliance between General Dostam and the former government. But Ghairat Baheer, designated ambassador to Islamabad by Mr Rabbani, said Mr Hekmatyar was unlikely to join current talks between General Dostam and Mr Rabbani.

Meanwhile, the Taliban's strained relations with international aid agencies worsened after a Red Cross delegate was accosted outside his Kabul home by Taliban gunmen who beat him and dragged him to a prison. He was kept overnight in a cell without medical attention for his two broken ribs.

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