U.S. officials: Mazar-e Sharif has yet to fall to opposition
By David Ensor
Washington (CNN) -- It looks as if Northern Alliance forces will win control of the strategic northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif but they have not done so yet, U.S. officials told CNN on Friday.
It is an overstatement to say the city has fallen to the Northern Alliance forces, according to the officials, although the alliance is in the city and there is fighting in the streets. They call "credible" reports that some Taliban forces are fleeing toward the capital Kabul, but one official warns "it is a very fluid situation."
Earlier, Northern Alliance Gen. Rashid Dostum said his troops entered the strategic city on Friday, suffering only light casualties in a four-and-a-half hour push. Dostum said only four of his men were killed, while advancing troops killed 90 Taliban soldiers. The claim could not be independently verified.
"The people from Taliban who were shot are in the hospital, but those who were healthy left the city," Dostum said.
Dostum said the alliance has control of "everything" in the city, including the airport. Other Northern Alliance commanders told CNN their forces had captured a smaller airport west of the city, and key heights near Mazar-e Sharif's larger airport.
The United States has forces on the ground in the northern part of the country, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said, "and they'll be able to confirm what it is we're seeing and hearing." But he said that there were no U.S. military advisers with the alliance troops who claimed to be in Mazar-e Sharif.
Pentagon spokeswoman Tori Clarke indicated it would be "a day or two" before those forces could relay any information.
"There's a lot of dust in the air right now," Stufflebeem told reporters in Washington. "With that dust in the air, it's very hard to tell exactly what's going on."
The Taliban said they did not have enough information to confirm or deny the reports.
CNN reporters near Mazar-e Sharif reported seeing for the first time trucks of ammunition at the Uzbek-Afghan border, which could indicate an effort to resupply the Northern Alliance troops.
Northern Alliance spokesman Younis Kanoni said the Taliban have ordered their forces to withdraw from the area. Taliban authorities in Kandahar had no immediate comment on the reports and in Washington, U.S. officials said they were unable to confirm the Northern Alliance claim.
"What we have seen is encouraging," Clarke said. "We're not going to say more than that."
Dostum's troops controlled the strategic city until the Taliban captured it in 1998.
U.S. special operations troops have been working alongside the Northern Alliance for weeks, helping set up resupply operations and coordinating strikes by U.S. warplanes. But no U.S. advisers accompanied opposition troops into Mazar-e Sharif, Kanoni said.
Stufflebeem said U.S. advisers are not with every opposition force, which limits the ability of U.S. troops to confirm Northern Alliance reports.
He acknowledged that the Pentagon has received reports of the Taliban attempting to resupply their troops, but declined to say whether the Taliban forces were preparing to launch a counterattack.
A strategic city
The area around Mazar-e Sharif has been the scene of heavy fighting for more than three weeks, and U.S. air raids in recent days have been aimed at helping opposition troops gain ground against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. Earlier Northern Alliance advances toward the city had been reversed by counterattacks from Taliban forces.
The Taliban have been holding several hill ranges around Mazar-e Sharif, and Northern Alliance officials have said those could take weeks 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 surrounded by Taliban forces.
Mazar-e Sharif holds a strategic location along highways leading to the western city of Herat, the capital Kabul, and Afghanistan's borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, both of which are cooperating with the U.S. effort.
"We're interested in it because it would provide a land bridge, as has been said, up to Uzbekistan -- which provides us, among other things, a humanitarian pathway for us to move supplies out of Central Asia and down into Afghanistan," Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in southwest Asia, said Thursday.
Stufflebeem said capturing the city would be a psychological blow to the Taliban, and would provide a land bridge. He also said that if a land bridge is established, it would require forces to provide security, adding that troops from other countries would be under consideration for that role.
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 by U.S. bombing south of Mazar-e Sharif. The spokesman for the Harkat Jihad-i-Islami said a number of members of the group, including its commander, had been "seriously injured."
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.
Heavy bombardment of Kandahar
In Kandahar, meanwhile, residents awoke Friday to the sound of explosions as allied warplanes made pass after pass over the region, hitting Taliban targets.
The round of bombing began Thursday afternoon and has not let up. Many of the bombing runs are concentrated on the Taliban co-commander's headquarters in the northern part of the city, a site that has already been bombed several times.
People in the city do not understand why this site keeps being bombed when many believe there is nothing left there. And Kandahar's residents, especially women and children, are beginning to fear that their ancient homes will crumble from the constant explosions.
The frequent bombardments have sent up clouds of dust in the city. Many Taliban personnel have been driven out of urban areas by the bombings, but Taliban militia are still present to keep law and order. They now only appear in public in groups of two or three so they will not attract allied fire.
And in eastern Afghanistan, north of Kabul, U.S. warplanes targeted Taliban troops Thursday along the Shomali Plains and near the strategic air base at Bagram. Recent airstrikes have hit Taliban positions near Bagram with about a dozen bombs.
The airstrikes, for the first time, appeared to be hitting Taliban positions in the Safy mountains, which run between opposition front lines and Kabul to the south. The attacks appeared to be spread out over a 10-mile (16-kilometer) range, with bombs falling every 15 to 20 minutes over a two-hour period.
The Safy range overlooks the Bagram air base, which was built by Soviet forces during their war with Afghanistan in the 1980s. Although the Northern Alliance controls the base, Taliban forces hold the high ground above it -- making it unusable for opposition, U.S. and allied forces as a staging ground for attacks on Kabul.
-- CNN correspondents Kamal Hyder and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.
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