Taliban lose vital airbase to rebels

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IN WHAT would be a stunning setback for the current offensive by the ruling Taliban, opposition forces in Afghanistan are said to have carried out a massive and successful counter attack, recapturing the Bagram air base on the northern outskirts of the capital, Kabul.

Though the exact flow of battle could not be verified, independent observers in Pakistan reported that Bagram had been retaken in a pre-dawn attack by the forces of Ahmed Shah Massood, the lone obstacle to complete control of Afghanistan by the strictly Islamic Taliban movement, which overthrew the previous government in 1996.

According to spokesmen for Mr Massood, Taliban forces are being beaten back towards the capital along the so-called Old Road from Kabul to the north. They claim the opposition has retaken not only Bagram, but also the towns of Charikar and Gulbahar which guard the Panjshir valley, stronghold of Mr Massood and home to tens of thousands of his ethnic Tajik supporters. Hundreds of Taliban fighters are said to have been killed.

If the reports are true, they would mark a complete turnaround in the fighting which began 10 days ago. Only on Wednesday, seemingly confident of total victory, the Taliban were offering what amounted to an amnesty to those of its foes who surrendered, warning that the rest would be hunted down without quarter. Now, it appears, the endlessly resilient Mr Massood has turned the tables, and with the capture of the airbase, opened up a key channel for resupply.

For Afghanistan's ordinary citizens, who have known no proper peace since the Soviet invasion 20 years ago, the latest events have merely heaped misery upon more misery. Vast numbers of refugees have poured into the Panjshir valley, for fear of reprisals by Taliban fighters, who are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns.

Separately some 8,000 women and children who had found themselves in the path of the offensive were reportedly taken by bus, weeping and crying, by the Taliban authorities to a camp near Jalalabad close to the border with Pakistan. However they were later returned to Kabul, after warnings from international relief agencies that the camp, with rudimentary facilities and shelter, was simply uninhabitable in the searing summer heat.

Though the core of the Massood-led resistance comes from ethnic Tajiks, the opposition now groups virtually all elements in the country opposed to the Taliban, which controls an estimated 90 per cent of Afghan territory, and enjoys increasingly overt support from both Iran and Russia.

Shia Iran fears the emergence of a Sunni Muslim state on its eastern frontier, while Russia is desperate to avoid the spread of fundamentalism into the Asian republics to its south, which were part of the Soviet Union. This summer's Taliban offensive came after the breakdown of talks in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, sponsored by the UN and aimed at reaching a power sharing agreement.

But the Taliban's leaders refused to compromise, pinning their hopes instead on the by now traditional summer offensive. This year's promises to be no more conclusive, leaving the country still trapped in violence, anarchy, and desperate poverty.