Taliban army's victory ties up control of Afghanistan

Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan - Taliban fighters moved swiftly yesterday to assert their authority over this northern stronghold, whose capture nearly completed a three-year campaign to unite Afghanistan under the white flag of the radical Islamic army.

From loudspeakers atop Mazar-e-Sharif's ancient mosque, mutinous commanders from the army of northern warlord Rashid Dostum hailed his defeat and the capture of his capital.

Yesterday, Pakistan became the first country to recognise the Taliban government and urged other countries and organisations to do the same. The decision was announced by the Foreign Minister, Gohar Ayub Khan,

No country had previously recognised the Taliban government, set up in September last year when the Islamic militia captured the capital Kabul.

Mr Dostum escaped on Friday to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and arrived in Turkey yesterday, reportedly seeking asylum. Turkey, critical of the Taliban, has backed MrDostum, who is an ethnic Uzbek.

The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif brought virtually all of Afghanistan - barring a few pockets of resistance - under one regime for the first time since the Soviet army ended a 10-year occupation in 1989.

"Don't be afraid. Open your shops. All is safe," said Majeed Rozi, one of the mutineers that deserted Mr Dostum a week ago to join the Taliban army. The streets were calm despite some looting. Jeeps packed with soldiers carrying rocket launchers and assault rifles roared through the streets.

The Taliban victory was a boost to Pakistan, which had supported the group amid the chaos of feuding Afghan militias that followed the ousting of the Soviet-backed regime in 1992.

But Saturday's advance could bode ill for Central Asian republics to the north, which had backed Mr Dostum in the hope that he would shield their Muslim populations from the Taliban's influence.

Russia pledged to intervene if fighting spread to former Soviet republics which belong to the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Taliban foreign minister quickly sought to quell fears of further conquest. "I assure the world and neighbouring countries that the Taliban government is strictly adhering to a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries," Mullah Mohammed Ghous said in Islamabad.

On Saturday, some armed men were seen running from the shops of money changers with pockets stuffed with wads of the nearly worthless local currency and with US dollars.

The United Nations guest house in the heart of the city was robbed by more than a dozen men. Aid workers and foreign journalists said the intruders escaped with money, two-way radios, watches and a television satellite receiver. No one was hurt.

Giant posters of Mr Dostum that had dominated the city lay in tatters outside the grand blue mosque that houses the tomb of one of Islam's greatest saints, Hazrat Ali. In their place were pictures of Rasool Pahlawan, the brother of General Malik Pahlawan who led the mutiny against Mr Dostum. After his assassination, Rasool Pahlawan became a folk hero.

From the domed mosque that dominates the landscape of Mazar-e-Sharif, a cleric cried praises of the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. "Today God is with us and with the Taliban. Every problem we have will be solved. Communism is gone forever. Dostum is gone forever," rang the cleric's voice over the loud speaker.

A Taliban commander said the religious army will soon head south toward the territory controlled by Ahmed Shah Massood, the defence minister of the former government that was expelled from Kabul last September by the Taliban.

The Taliban have imposed a severe version of Islam that bars women from working, bans alcohol and most entertainment, and forces men to pray in the mosques.

n The Taliban captured the Salang Pass, which lies on the main highway from Kabul to Central Asia, when a commander of forces defending it struck a deal with the Islamic militia. Hundreds of jubilant Taliban troops waited to move across the front line.