New attacks on Kandahar
Northern Alliance 'gaining ground' near Mazar-e Sharif
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Another intensive attack was launched on Kandahar Thursday night with gunships and bombers pounding positions around the city, some of which had been hit earlier in the day.
CNN reported that positions to the north of the city, as well as east toward the airport and west of the city were hit. The strikes included AC-130 gunships, distinguishable by their loud buzzing noise. Taliban anti-aircraft artillery was visible as several bombs rained down on positions in and around Kandahar.
Elsewhere, forces from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance have made advances on the front line south of the strategic town of Mazar-e Sharif, Alliance officials told CNN.
According to the Alliance on Wednesday night their forces captured the district of Shulgareh, capturing 280 Taliban troops in the process with another 500 troops defecting.
Earlier this week, the Northern Alliance said their forces had captured two other districts south of Mazar-e Sharif. A district is a subdivision of a province, and is generally larger than a city. None of the claims has been independently verified.
If the advances are confirmed, anti-Taliban forces could be now within about 4 miles (6 km) of Mazar-e Sharif. The city is key because it lies along strategic supply routes to the capital of Kabul.
A 'gunfight' in Mazar-e Sharif
In Washington, U.S. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the officer in charge of the day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan, said the city is "interesting to us" because it would provide a land bridge to Uzbekistan for both troops and humanitarian aid.
Asked to describe the Northern Alliance's progress, Franks would only say that a "gunfight" was in progress in the vicinity of Mazar-e Sharif.
"It is a bit early for us to say that this will establish the land bridge," Franks said.
In other developments, the Arabic language television network Al-Jazeera broadcast an interview with the spokesman of a Pakistani militant group who said 85 of the group's soldiers had been killed south of Mazar-e Sharif by U.S. bombing.
The spokesman for the militant Harkat Jihad-i-Islami group said a number of members of the group, including the group's commander had been "seriously injured."
Al-Jazeera also broadcast pictures of Taliban fighters in the Nangarhar province who said they were leaving the area because of the bombing. In the video, a number of men identified as Taliban fighters were transporting a car on a boat across a river.
The Qatar-based network also showed pictures of what it said were volunteers who had come to Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan to join the Taliban. The volunteers could be seen getting ammunition and rifles.
Northern Alliance forces face a tough challenge should they attempt to advance on Mazar-e Sharif from the south.
The Taliban hold several hill ranges along the way that Alliance officials concede could take weeks, if not more, to wrest away.
Alliance efforts are further complicated by the logistical challenge posed by the Afghan terrain, and the fact that the pocket from which they are launching attacks on Mazar-e Sharif is completely surrounded by Taliban forces.
In eastern Afghanistan, north of the capital, Kabul, U.S. warplanes targeted Taliban frontline troops Thursday along the Shamali Plains and the Shafy mountain range near the strategic Bagram air base.
Starting about 7 a.m. local time, airstrikes hit Taliban positions near Bagram with about a dozen bombs.
The attacks appeared to be spread out over a 10-mile (16 km) range with bombs falling every 15 to 20 minutes over a two-hour period.
The airstrikes, for the first time, appeared to be hitting Taliban positions in the Safy mountains that run between opposition front lines and Kabul to the south.
The Safy Mountain range is of strategic importance because it overlooks the Bagram air base, which was built by Soviet forces during the Soviet Union's war with Afghanistan in the 1980s.
As long as Taliban forces hold the high ground above the base, it would be unusable by Northern Alliance, U.S. and allied forces as a possible staging ground for attacks on Kabul.
A former mujahedeen commander and six of his followers have been arrested by the Taliban in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province and charged with espionage, according to relatives and supporters.
Khair Mohammad, the ex-commander, and the others have not yet been tried or sentenced. The arrest comes on the heels of the capture and execution of the prominent former mujahedeen commander Abdul Haq, who was convicted of spying for the United States.
-- CNN Correspondent Kamal Hyder contributed to this report.
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