Koran spurs on mystery militia

The black Chevrolet limousine was crammed with armed Afghan rebels. Raising a tornado of dirt, it slewed through the adobe village of Charasyar, accelerated past a few captured tanks and sped towards the mountains. The rebels grinned and waved.

"The car once belonged to the Communist president. Then it was grabbed by the rebel commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Now that we've chased him away, the car belongs to us," boasted a young Afghan, whose AK-47 rifle and white turban identified him as a member of Taliban, the militia of Koranic students who have pulled off a swift and nearly bloodless conquest of southern Afghanistan.

Numbering more than 10,000 and backed by 100 tanks and several MiG fighter jets, the students are within eight miles of the capital, Kabul, and demanding that the government of "criminals" step down.

The history of Afghanistan has often been a repetitive tale of double- crossing tribes stealing land and looting from each other. It used to be horses; now it is a Chevrolet. The Taliban movement has gained momentum and widespread support among the Afghans, because they vowed to uphold Islam and restore peace and justice to this country, shattered by 15 years of unending war.

With the Taliban artillery rolling through iron-coloured hills south east of the capital, many of Kabul's citizens are worried about the motives of this mysterious militia. The Taliban claim they want to reunite Afghanistan. But perhaps they, like the warlord commanders they denounce as bandits, only want their share of Chevrolets.

Their view of Islam is fundamentalist: they killed opium smugglers and shot a fruit vendor in Kandahar for serving a woman. Most Taliban zealots belong to the Pathan tribes, who are Sunnis, yet they are tolerant of the minority Shias under their control. Some Afghans said the Taliban receive covert aid from Pakistani militant Muslim groups but no proof has emerged. So far, they have been able to sweep past the ethnic and sectarian hatreds which have set the mujahedin factions killing each other.

On their tanks the Taliban fly white flags, the Islamic colour of peace. They charge into battle with Korans strung round their necks. Even their strength is unknown. Guesses range from 6,000 to 25,000. Over the past three months they poured out of the madrassas, or religious schools. Many were recruited from the camps in western Pakistan where more than 1.5 million Afghans live in tents and on charity handouts. They are prepared to wage a new holy war, not against Soviet troops but against the mujahedin factions whose intrigues and feuds have left 20,000 dead over the past few years and pounded Kabul into rubble.

A Kabul teacher, Mohammed Arif, expressed the fear voiced by many in the capital. "We don't know anything about the Taliban. We're worried that they might try to attack the city." For now, though, Kabul is grateful that the Taliban have driven off the Hezbi Islami forces of Mr Hekmatyar, who for two years have shelled the capital mercilessly. You can drive miles through the city without seeing a house, a mosque or a bridge that has not been damaged.

For a week now the shelling has stopped. The Taliban opened the southern roads into the besieged city and prices for food and petrol have nearly halved. When a few boys yesterday flew their kites, it was such a rarity after months of falling rockets that hundreds gathered to watch the kites soaring in the icy wind that swept off the mountains.

Even at the front line on the Logar road, where the Taliban and the troops of President Burhanuddin Rabbani are staring at each other from only 100 yards away, the atmosphere is relaxed. Fighters wander across the lines, chatting with the enemy. The Taliban are said to have infiltrated unarmed Koranic students into Kabul who are trying to ease fears of another assault. At the Taliban's battle headquarters in Charasyar there are no hints of an impending attack. Many of the Taliban were sitting along a wall, impatient for the setting of the sun, which will bring an end to their day-long Ramadan fasting. One madrassa student, Mullah Samant Halim, said: "How could I study books when my country was falling apart? There was too much plundering, murder. It had to be stopped.''

A Taliban's commander, Mohammed Rabbani, is expected to meet today a United Nations envoy, Mahmoud Mestiri, who is trying to set up an interim council to take over from Mr Rabbani. The President should have stepped down seven weeks ago but has been slow to give up power. The Taliban views the UN peace plan as positive, but will refuse to deal with the proposed council, since it comprises representatives of the mujahedin factions.

Mr Rabbani was due to transfer power to the council, headed by Sultan Ghazi, a cousin of Afghanistan's deposed monarch, today, but the handover may be delayed for several days, according to diplomatic sources. A key obstacle to peace in Afghanistan is the Taliban's insistence that Mr Rabbani's forces be withdrawn from Kabul and be replaced by a neutral security force. But after fighting so hard to remain in Kabul, Mr Rabbani and his forces may be unwilling to give it up so easily.