Afghan rebels claim 'dramatic' Taliban defeat
JABAL SERAAJ, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Northern Alliance leaders claimed their troops were in control of several more towns Sunday and had cut off the remaining Taliban forces in northeast Afghanistan.
"The importance of this big defeat, dramatic defeat is not only that they have lost areas, but they have lost their main fighting force," said Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance's foreign minister.
Opposition troops seized control of the key cities of Bamiyan, east of Kabul, and Taloqan, near the border with Tajikistan, Abdullah told reporters Sunday. The claims could not be independently confirmed.
Abdullah said alliance forces in the northeast were "slowly, gradually" moving toward the city of Konduz, the last major Taliban stronghold in the region. Konduz is about 70 kilometers (44 miles) west of Taloqan.
"Hopefully, we will manage Konduz tonight or tomorrow," he said. "They are fully encircled. They have no escape."
He said opposition forces were also pressing Taliban forces at Dastiqala, where the Taliban dead and wounded were "mainly foreigners" -- Muslim volunteers from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Abdullah said opposition troops had taken dozens of international volunteers as prisoners, but he did not have an exact number.
On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the Northern Alliance has "effective control" of the strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif and is in the process of securing the airport there. However, speaking on Fox News Sunday, Rumsfeld said, "there are pockets of resistance within the city that continue."
"There could always be a counterattack," he said. "I think that the forces on the ground are sensitive to that."
Abdullah: No fighting in Kabul
Abdullah said Taloqan was captured with the aid of local forces that turned against the Taliban. The alliance also claimed it had captured the town of Pul-e-Khumri, which lies along a main road to the capital Kabul; and the central province and city of Bamiyan, which lies along the main east-west road from Kabul to Herat.
Bamiyan was home to two giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban earlier this year for being un-Islamic. Several governments, including the United States, condemned the act.
U.S. forces continued to bomb Afghanistan on Sunday, striking targets near the Soviet-built air base at Bagram, north of Kabul, and in other areas. Northern Alliance forces were also moving toward Kabul, with tanks and armored personnel carriers moving in darkness toward the front lines Sunday night following the allied airstrikes.
Abdullah said the Northern Alliance agreed with U.S. officials -- including President Bush -- that its forces should not move into the capital immediately.
"We do not want to see any conflict in Kabul. Kabul should serve as a venue for talks, negotiations, for peace, the conception of Afghanistan, building institutions. That part is understandable to us," Abdullah said.
After holding talks with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday, Bush encouraged the Northern Alliance to head toward Kabul but not into the city, saying control of the capital was key to any future political arrangement in the country.
Pakistan does not support the Northern Alliance in a post-Taliban government, should the regime fall. But Abdullah said U.S. officials should pay less attention to Pakistan's concerns, blaming Pakistani support for the Taliban for much of the region's problems.
But politics weren't the only reason the Northern Alliance was staying away. Kabul is a fiercely defended Taliban stronghold, with Taliban fighters entrenched in the heights above Bagram.
CNN staffers in the Shomali Plains said the area overlooking Bagram had been quiet for 15 hours until a high-altitude bomber circled overhead Saturday night. In a second and third run, the plane dropped two bombs on Taliban positions that had been targeted in heavy raids earlier in the week. The second bomb was described as "large," shaking a facility housing CNN staff from about six miles (10 kilometers) away.
U.S. denies attack on civilian caves
In another development, independent CNN sources said that civilian cave dwellings in the remote village of Usmanzai -- about 70 kilometers (43 miles) northwest of Kandahar -- were bombed Thursday night, by U.S.-led air strikes. Hundreds are missing and feared dead.
The blast caused rock slides that closed the mouths of the tunnels, trapping many inside. Survivors took what they could and left the village in fear, saying they had no ties to Osama bin Laden.
The attack happened about the same time as another allied airstrike in the nearby village of Shahagha, known for a famous Muslim shrine, which CNN sources said was destroyed in the bombing.
At least 128 civilians were killed and hundreds of villagers were buried in the rubble of their own houses, the sources said. Survivors requested the help of bulldozers to uncover more bodies, believed to be in the rubble.
A senior U.S. military official denied Shahagha was struck by allied planes.
"We have reviewed overhead imagery after a strike nearby and it shows no damage to any civilian structures, personnel, or shrine," the official told CNN.
News of the reported attacks did not reach the media until Friday night because of the remoteness of the villages, and the first local confirmations of the incidents did not come until Saturday night.
-- CNN correspondents Satinder Bindra, Nic Robertson, Kamal Hyder and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.
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