Soldiers of the Afghan opposition will launch ground attacks on the Taliban only when the US begins military action in Afghanistan, a senior general of the Northern Alliance has said.
General Feisal Ahmed Hazimi, a veteran commander who claims to lead 10,000 troops, said: "If the Americans attack then we will attack." He wanted to see what kind of assault the US intended before committing his troops.
General Hazimi, one of the most powerful of the opposition military leaders, who is in command of a vital section of the front in Kapisa province, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, made clear that the Northern Alliance wanted to see the Taliban weakened by US air attack before taking the offensive. His officers made the same point.
In a badly damaged white building, pitted with holes from shrapnel and bullets, which serves as his headquarters on a hilltop overlooking the front line, Commander Selim, a lightly bearded 32-year-old soldier, has no doubt about what is going to happen. Gesturing towards the Taliban lines a mile ahead, the officer, who has been fighting since he was 12, said: "If the US starts a bombardment, we'll attack for sure. We are already mobilised."
The front line was quiet yesterday, though there was a distant thump of machine-gun fire somewhere in the flat green plain where the Northern Alliance and Taliban lines meet. In front of his headquarters, once the administrative centre of Kapisa province, Commander Selim had stationed a tank, but there was no sign of it going anywhere.
Asked if there had been any serious fighting on his front in recent days, he said: "Oh, yes. We don't throw stones at each other here." He said the Taliban had attacked immediately after the assassination of the Northern Alliance's military leader, Ahmed Shah Masood, but had been thrown back.
Commander Selim added that a Taliban rocket had killed two civilians and wounded two others when it hit the village of Mahmoud Raqy the previous day. In this heavily populated area villagers are too poor even to flee. They must stay and till their fields or starve.
An elderly white-bearded man from the village called Fazil Haq, standing outside the military headquarters, said: "Yes, it is dangerous for us to live here, but what else can we do? Five of our people were killed and six wounded by a rocket a week ago."
Commander Selim appeared confident of success if he attacked during an American air assault against the Taliban.
He said that he had 2,000 men, and though all sides systematically exaggerate their numbers in Afghanistan this is probably close to the truth. As we looked out over the valley, a man introduced himself as Nasrullah and said he was the chief logistics' officer for Commander Selim's forces.
Nasrullah was not in a good mood. He said that, in the area around the headquarters alone, "I am expected to feed 1,200 soldiers and they supply me with only poor quality rice for 200 men. I also try to give them meat three times a week."
On our return, we skirted the mud-brick houses of the village of Mahmoud Raqy, where Commander Selim had told us that a rocket had landed the previous day. We wondered what had happened to the two wounded, and stopped at a first-aid station organised by the Italian charity Emergency, some five miles behind the front line. It was staffed by two Afghan nurses called Mahmoud and Jan Mohammed, and they had treated the people we inquired about.
To give further details they opened a big blue book in which they had meticulously recorded the casualties they treated.
The wounded from Mahmoud Raqy were women, Najmuddin Bawaf Shah, 35, and Aligoul Faselah, 17, who had both been badly injured in the legs by the Taliban rocket. Mahmoud said: "They have been sent to a proper hospital in the Panjshir Valley."
In the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, thousands of protesters marched and burnt effigies of President George Bush, a Taliban official said.
The crowd gathered to show its support for the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who have refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and instead chosen to face the wrath of the US military.
In Washington, the Northern Aliiance's envoy said American aid was being used to bribe Taliban commanders and infiltrate their forces as part of the deal being brokered to overthrow the regime.
In an interview with The Independent, the envoy, Haron Amin, said the alliance was already making inroads in destabilising the Taliban forces and recruiting deserters, including field commanders. Money was needed to "bribe Taliban commanders and back people who were countering terrorism", he said. Mr Amin claimed alliance members had already infiltrated the Taliban forces inside Afghanistan, who were presumably providing information on which commanders might be susceptible to bribery."We know the geography, we have the people, we speak the language. We can infiltrate the forces of the Taliban. This could be crucial," he said.
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