Taliban, the Islamic student militia, fought its way closer to Kabul yesterday, capturing several strategic positions in the hills outside the battered Afghan capital.
The Taliban students are no longer armed only with the Koran. Supported by tanks, artillery and renegade fighter- pilots flying MiGs, they have spread Islamic rule over the southern half of the war-weary country. They have vowed to lay siege to Kabul, if President Burhanuddin Rabbani does not step down.
Foreign aid agencies in Kabul say the Taliban has seized two key positions, Charasiab and the Kaldabad hills, over the past two days. These new Taliban outposts are only 12 miles south of Kabul, enabling the militia to strike the capital with rockets, a fate Kabul's citizens have endured several times over the past three years of fighting between government forces and rebels.
After pin-pointing the Taliban's new strongholds with reconnaissance flights two days ago, the government struck back yesterday with a barrage of rockets on the attackers. An aid worker said: "It sounded like a thousand rockets were fired into the hills south of Kabul." The Taliban is advancing along the southern route from Mohamed Agha, but will soon run into a ring of artillery and tank defences around Kabul.
"So far, Kabul's been quiet. No rockets have fallen on the city yet, but it sounds like there's plenty of fighting outside, and it's getting closer," a relief worker said. Residents of the shattered city have rarely experienced a month without rocket attacks, so the Taliban's advance has not yet caused panic. "It's probably safer if people remain in Kabul, at least until they know who controls the surrounding countryside," the relief worker added.
The assault is the Taliban's second on Kabul. The militia was within a few miles of the capital last spring, but was routed by government forces under the acting defence minister, Ahmed Shah Masood. The odds have shifted since then. Although the Taliban earlier refused to deal with any of the warring regional commanders who have splintered the country following the defeat of the pro-Soviet regime in 1992, the Islamic students now have pacts with all Mr Rabbani's enemies, including an ex-Communist general, Rashid Dostum. From his fortress headquarters near the northern Uzbek border, General Dostum reportedly is ready to hurl his Russian-made fighter planes into the Taliban siege of Kabul.
The government also accuses Pakistan of supplying the Taliban with military advisers and weapons. Pakistan wants to open a trade route through Afghanistan into the new Central Asian republics.
On 5 September the Taliban overran the eastern city of Herat, held by a Rabbani ally. Herat's warlord paid his militiamen only pounds 3 a month, and they surrendered rather than fight the Taliban. Kabul may not fall so fast. Government troops are better paid, loyal and heavily armed. Past experience shows they have no qualms about firing on Koran-wielding warriors.