Taliban troops caught out by Kabul bombardment

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Fighter jets belonging to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who controls the north of Afghanistan, launched a midnight bomb attack on Kabul yesterday.

Most of the bombs hit the airport, but one landed in the middle of the city, hitting Kabul's only public lavatory. Nobody was injured, but glass was shattered in surrounding shops. Residents awoke to find that the past four weeks of peace had ended.

The low-flying jets took Taliban soldiers by surprise. The planes had disappeared by the time they started firing back. Then they fired anti- aircraft guns and rockets haphazardly into the air for 20 minutes, hitting nothing, but showering the city with empty bullet cases and shrapnel.

The air attack was the first sign of the expected huge offensive against the Taliban Islamic army by once rival forces. The Taliban are obviously feeling the pressure. Yesterday, soldiers, angry and exhausted from the overnight fighting, threw stones and threatened journalists who tried to go to the front line.

The Taliban have responded by moving up more men and heavy weapons. All day, a steady stream of rocket launchers and tanks moved north from Kabul. Unlike other days, when soldiers take time for tea and prayer, they maintained a steady attack on a strategic ridge of hills, at the foot of the Hindu Kush.

The Taliban fight in light-weight shirts and trousers and long black turbans. Dostum's soldiers are instantly recognisable by their thick moustaches, closely shaved chins and blue chequered turbans over neat Soviet-issue army uniforms. Most, like Dostum, are members of the former communist army. They are more experienced at fighting in central Afghanistan's freezing winters than the Taliban, who are from the south.

The main road to the front line is filled with people walking or driving away from the fighting. Villagers have been warned that if do not leave, they will be forced to fight.

For most the decision has been easy. They pack their families, animals and furniture into trucks and join a convoy moving towards Kabul. Ahmed Shah, a farmer, could not afford to hire a truck. He and his wife walked for five hours from their home, near the front line, to the city. Carrying his two-year-old son on his back and holding a black goat by a rope, he was nearly crying as he explained that he had been forced out of his home by the Taliban. "They beat some of my neighbours and told us to leave. We had no time to take any of our possessions, only the clothes we are wearing, and we have nowhere to go," he said.

Many fear that the refugees may soon have to move further than Kabul to escape the fighting. Western diplomats expect more night-time air raids.