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Relentless student army eyes Kabul

The Islamic students are marching through Afghanistan with open Korans. And when Allah's words fail to persuade Afghan rebels and bandits to surrender, the student militia, known as the Taliban, relies on its 100 tanks and armoured vehicles to clear the way with fire.

Afghanistan's main rebel group, Hizbe Islami, yesterday admitted that it had been driven from its stronghold at Charasyab, 18 miles south of Kabul. Only a few artillery blasts from the Taliban were enough to dislodge Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's forces from the positions they had used to pour shells daily into Kabul, killing thousands of Afghans in the capital.

The victory marks a decisive and unforeseen twist in Afghanistan's anarchic civil war. Six months ago, the Taliban militia - the name simply means "religious students" - did not exist. Now it has conquered most of southern Afghanistan, driven the most powerful warlord's forces into retreat, and is advancing on Kabul.

The capital's defenders, who are loyal to President Burhanuddin Rabbani, could not push Hizbe Islami out of Charasyab, despite air raids and offensives.Yet Mr Hekmatyar fled from his headquarters without a fight before the advancing students. Reporters said the rebel commander left without taking his prized carpets, his documents or even a change of clothes. He retreated to Sarobi, where he can cause mischief on the main road between Kabul and the Khyber Pass into Pakistan.

Although Kabul's citizens passed a rare night yesterday without rockets or shells, their relief may be short-lived. The Taliban militia vowed to take the capital, and it is doubtful that the government troops, led by Ahmed Shah Massoud, will give up easily after battling so long. The Taliban accuse all nine mujahedin rebel factions - which have been feuding among themselves since crushing the pro-Soviet regime in 1992 - of being "criminals" who "betrayed" the Afghans' trust. The 4,000 armed Muslim students, recruited mainly from Afghan refugee camps along the Pakistan border, consider Mr Rabbani just as "criminal" as the Hizbe Islami warlord.

Taliban's message is popular. After the jihad victory against the Communists, the rebel leaders have splintered Afghanistan into warring fiefdoms where banditry and opium-smuggling are rife. Led by a reformist Kandahar cleric, Mulana Omar, the Koranic students have opened up roads, allowing supply convoys to reach Kabul's starved citizens and have brought a hope of peace to the nine of Afghanistan's 30 provinces under their control.Many rebels have chosen to join their ranks rather than fight the fundamentalist Islamic students.

The Taliban's rapid advance has thrown into disarray a United Nations- brokered peace plan, set to begin on Monday. Under the UN formula, Mr Rabbani is to hand over power to an interim council made up of "neutral personalities" and representatives of the nine main mujahedin factions. Short-sightedly, the UN failed to invite the Taliban students to join the council.

Mahmood Mestiri, a UN envoy, said in Islamabad that despite Hizbe Islami's defeat, and the proximity of the student fighters to Kabul, the UN still intended to set up its power-sharing council. "This should make the peace talks more urgent. All parties now feel threatened by the Taliban."

Mr Hekmatyar's forces had been the most badly battered by the Taliban fighters sweeping towards Kabul. Their defeat also weakens Mr Hekmatyar's two powerful allies, the Uzbek army of General Abdul Rashid Dostum and the Shia militias.

Many diplomats are asking who is behind the mysterious Taliban militia. Its fighters obey a Shura or general assembly, based in Kandahar, 280 miles south of Kabul, yet the students are known to have links with radical Islamic groups in Pakistan and possibly other Muslim countries which funded the Koranic schools in the refugee camps. So far, though, by adhering to the Koran, the Taliban has avoided embroiling itself in ethnic and political rivalry.