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Northern Alliance forces claim new gains against Taliban

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Opposition forces claimed more gains Thursday in their ongoing war to retake Afghanistan from the ruling Taliban regime, including the capture of the capital of north-central Ghowr province, which includes an airport and supply lines used by Taliban troops.

The gains, which could not be independently confirmed, would mark the latest in a series of advances by Northern Alliance forces this week -- advances that have been made since the beginning of the United States-led airstrikes on Taliban and terrorist targets throughout Afghanistan.

The Afghan opposition forces also reported repelling a Taliban attack in Samangan province on Thursday, as well as advances in an area near the country's border with Turkmenistan. Earlier in the week, the Northern Alliance said it cut off the main north-south supply route for Taliban troops in the western Baghlan province, when 40 commanders and 1,200 fighters allied with the Taliban switched sides.

The Taliban have denied previous reports of opposition advances.

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In previous days some Northern Alliance front-line commanders have voiced frustration that the U.S.-led airstrikes have not directly hit positions critical to the Alliance's aim of retaking Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.

Rumsfeld: 'All to the better' if airstrikes help opposition

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the primary objectives of the U.S. airstrikes were destroying the Taliban air defenses and their ability to fly, as well as destroying other capabilities of the Taliban military and the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Still, Rumsfeld added: "To the extent that they happen to be done in a way that advantages the opposition forces on the ground, all to the better."

Northern Alliance forces are concentrated about 25 miles north of Kabul, where they are facing off against Taliban forces holding the capital from key mountain positions.

The Alliance includes approximately 15,000 troops, and its forces have been fighting the larger Taliban militias for several years. When the U.S.-led airstrikes began on Sunday, the alliance controlled less than 10 percent of Afghanistan's territory. Its forces are equipped with worn, Soviet-era tanks and guns.

Top officials within the rebel forces have voiced satisfaction in recent days at the effect the U.S. airstrikes are having on the Taliban. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said Tuesday that the combination of the airstrikes and the alliance's own attacks had put the Taliban in "a very difficult situation."

Though outmanned, Alliance forces are hoping the airstrikes will soften Taliban positions around the capital, paving the way for an offensive and eventually allowing them to retake Kabul. Since the airstrikes began, Northern Alliance and Taliban forces have continued to exchange artillery and machine gun fire along the frontline, where gunners from both sides are dug in barely 500 meters apart.

"I want U.S. strikes to be more powerful, because they've had no effect here," an Alliance commander named Babajan told CNN earlier in the week.

Political sensitivities

At a Pentagon briefing Thursday, Maj. Gen. Henry Osman said U.S. forces were receiving target information from Northern Alliance forces, but he said there was no coordination between the U.S. and the Alliance on which targets to hit.

"Coordination is probably too strong a word," Osman said. "We are obviously receiving communications from the Northern Alliance. It's possible to use that in target planning. But as far as coordinating targets with the Northern Alliance, in the sense of discussing with them targets, that is not taking place."

Direct support of the Northern Alliance could present the U.S. and its coalition with some difficulties. The U.S.-led coalition wants to maintain the support of other factions and ethnic groups within Afghanistan that also oppose the Taliban. And Pakistan, a key ally in the region, opposes the Alliance as potential rulers of their neighboring country.

U.S. officials have said, generally, that they support all groups within Afghanistan who are committed to fighting terrorism, in particular Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and the ruling Taliban, who have harbored bin Laden.

Rumsfeld said questions about Afghanistan's government once the Taliban is removed will have to be addressed by the Afghan people.

"We certainly are encouraging the forces that are opposing Taliban to be successful," he said. "We are encouraging the forces within Taliban that are against al Qaeda to be bold."

--CNN's Manuel Perez-Rivas and CNN Correspondents Chris Burns and Matthew Chance contributed to this report.


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