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Northern Alliance Claims it Has Entered Mazar-e-Sharif

Aired November 9, 2001 - 10:44   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get straight to the region and CNN's Ben Wedeman who is in Northern Afghanistan.

Ben, if you can hear me, tell which town you are in and how far from Mazar-e-Sharif at this point?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Bill, I'm in Hojabahadeen (ph), which is several hours by car from Mazar-e-Sharif, but we are hearing both from the Northern Alliance officials here in Hojabahedeen, as well as from General Dostrum, who is the head of one of the factions fighting the Taliban. Both of them tell us directly that the Northern Alliance forces have retaken the strategic Northern Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif. There is no independent confirmation of that. If it is true, however, this would indicate that major defeat for the Taliban and the first major advance by the Northern Alliance forces since this -- since the 11th of September -- Bill.

HEMMER: Yes, Ben, also getting reports here, and as we have talked about for quite some time, that town is located in an area where it's quite mountainous as well, and there was concern that Taliban troops could retreat into those mountain areas and use as a launching pad on basically troops that would be working down in the town below. Do you have any indication at this point?

WEDEMAN: Much of Northern Afghanistan is very mountainous, and the situation is so (AUDIO GAP) on the ground would be not (AUDIO GAP) perhaps the terrain in this part of the country for the Taliban forces to essentially melt into the mountains. There's the logistical problem for them of resupply. And if Mazar-e-Sharif were actually -- has actually been taken, that would essentially cut them off from their supplies coming from the southern part of the country, Kandahar, as well as the capitol of Afghanistan, Kabul -- Bill.

HEMMER: Ben, we have heard reports from different towns, different villages, especially in that area just south there they talked about on Wednesday of this week, where three small villages have been taken by Northern Alliance troops. Is there any reason at this point, Ben, that these claims hold up stronger and are more, shall we say, more respectable than we have heard in the past?

WEDEMAN: To be quite honest, no. We do hear frequently from Northern Alliance officials of the fact that sometimes these advances or the recapture of territory in fact is only temporary. And certainly, given the timeframe we're hearing from the, for instance, from General Dostum, as well as other Northern Alliance officials, the recapture, if we're to take it as that, of Mazar-e-Sharif, only happened a few hours ago. And there's no reason to be quite confident that they will be able to hold the city. So certainly one must point out the situation is obviously very fluid on the ground, and these reports are very difficult, if not impossible to verify.

HEMMER: Ben, also getting a report from one of the Northern Alliance commander that the Taliban troops, in his words, appear to be retreating east. Not quite clear on the geography from that town leading out, but would that serve logic to you, make sense to you, that they would be going east?

WEDEMAN: East actually wouldn't make as much sense as west or southwest, which would -- or rather southeast, which would take them in the direction of Kabul, which was basically the corridor between Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, because what is situation was on the ground, was there was a large Northern Alliance pocket of control south of Mazar-e-Sharif, and the push toward the city came from the south, and they certainly -- if they did want to pull out of that area and regroup and reconcentrate their forces, it would be to the southeast.

HEMMER: Ben, a few more questions here, that town, if my memory serves me correctly, I thought laid about 100 miles within the Afghan border, south of Uzbekistan. Is that geography straight, About 100 miles?

WEDEMAN: That's probably correct. But one must point out that 100 miles in Afghanistan is certainly much different than 100 miles in the United States, for instance. The roads are barely roads at all, and therefore, 100 miles is a very large distance within this country. Obviously, Mazar-e-Sharif's proximity to Uzbekistan is very important in terms of the U.S. war effort, trying to establish lines of supplies, as well as airbases within Afghanistan itself, and one of the goals of the U.S. war at the moment is to try to operate from the ground to allow low-flying aircraft to make more precision, more intense bombing raids on Taliban positions.

Therefore, the proximity to Uzbekistan is very important, because we know there's approximately 1,000 U.S. special forces troops in that country, and the assumption on the ground here, and also among Northern Alliance officials is that those forces would move south if the Mazar-e-Sharif area were to be recaptured by the Northern Alliance.

HEMMER: From the military standpoint, that airport critical. Any updates on the condition of that? We know at certain points, U.S. airstrikes have strayed away from hitting certain airports and damage them too much? Is there an update on the runway there or how the facilities might be at this point?

WEDEMAN: Certainly even prior to the U.S. airstrikes, probably the condition of that airport was not optimal, probably not up to the minimum standard that the United States Air Force would like to operate under. From what I've been told by people who've been there, the airport is in fact littered with old, the wreckage of old Soviet tanks. There's a good deal of fighting there, as well as following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in May 1989, so certainly, the airport probably is not in the best of conditions, but obviously, the United States would exert whatever effort it can at this point to upgrade the facilities.

HEMMER: Ben Wedeman by telephone in Northern Afghanistan. Ben, thank you. Get back to us when you get more there.

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