Rocket attacks on Kabul halt flights

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THE TALIBAN pushed forward yesterday in their summer offensive to destroy Ahmed Shah Massood's forces.

For a third successive day, the Taliban's MiG jets took off from their base at Kabul to pound enemy positions around the Panjshir valley, while ground troops, backed by artillery, pressed north towards two key targets, the town of Tagab and the Bagram air base, 30 miles north of the capital.

In a statement, the opposition conceded that some ground had been lost. But it predicted resistance would intensify as Taliban troops advanced. And another round of rocket attacks on Kabul airport yesterday, which forced a suspension of aid flights, only underlined the fact the Taliban's numerical superiority is no guarantee of an easy victory.

The fighting follows the breakdown of UN-sponsored peace talks earlier this month in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, aimed at finding a power-sharing formula to end 20 years of virtually non-stop war since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Such a deal might have cleared the way for full international recognition of the radical Sunni Muslim government of the Taliban, which has diplomatic ties with only three countries - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

But the forces of Ahmed Massood, who was the military commander under the former Rabbani government overthrown by the Taliban in 1996, are well dug in. They are supported by various Afghan minorities, and have backing from Russia and also Shia Iran, with whom the Taliban came close to full- scale war last year.

The Taliban dismissed as "baseless" a report that the alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden was planning to leave Afghanistan because he fears another US air raid similar to the one that severely damaged his headquarters last year.