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West ponders aid to Afghan opposition

NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- Afghanistan's anti-Taliban forces stepped up their military campaign Monday as Western powers and Russia considered how to aid the opposition movement.

The Taliban admitted they had lost territory to the opposition Northern Alliance near the city of Balkh, north of Kabul. The Northern Alliance claimed over the weekend to have pushed Taliban forces back at a number of points, but Taliban officials in Kabul say their troops recaptured one district after heavy fighting.

The Northern Alliance holds less than 10 percent of the country, concentrated mostly in the mountains around Kabul. Its claims of military advances cannot be independently verified, and they have been disputed by Taliban officials. But with U.S. forces moving into the region for a possible attack on Afghanistan, the alliance has offered to aid any U.S. effort.

U.S. officials have hinted that they may take the alliance up on that offer. Knowledgeable sources told CNN that spies and special operations troops from several countries already were operating in areas under the Northern Alliance's control.

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Officials told London's Sunday Times that a British detachment already has come under fire from Taliban fighters near Kabul. And Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that his government would expand its cooperation with the Afghan opposition, including providing military aid.

The Alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, told CNN on Sunday he believes the United States is seeking to topple the ruling Taliban in addition to its stated goal of bringing suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden to justice. Abdullah said he got the impression from conversations with U.S. officials that they want to remove the Taliban from power.

"We can imagine that any attempt to eradicate terrorism would be half done if those forces which had created the situation remain intact," he said.

The Northern Alliance has had military help from Russian and India in recent years. Its leaders are veterans of the 1979-89 war with the Soviet Union, when Afghan guerrillas fought the Red Army with U.S. help. But the alliance is mostly composed of Afghanistan's minorities -- Tajiks, Uzbeks and other groups -- while the Taliban draw most of their support from the Pashtun, the country's largest ethnic group. And the inability of the anti-Soviet mujahedin to establish a government after overthrowing the Soviet-backed communist regime has diplomats, aid workers and political analysts expressing doubt that the alliance is the solution to Afghanistan's problems.

"The reason for that mess was their complete and total failure to cooperate among themselves and their constant tendency to infighting," Anatole Lieven, an analysti with the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace, said. "Maybe that's changed, but maybe it hasn't."

And the alliance is just one of numerous political organizations that operate among more than 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Others, including the Northern Alliance, have looked to Afghanistan's pre-communist king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile in Rome since the 1970s.

"It's not just about the Northern Alliance, but about the former king," said Siddiqullah Mojadedi, leader of the Afghan National Liberation Front and son of a former Afghan president. "There area lot of rumors that he will come back and take over. But I don't think either is the proper solution to the current crisis. I think the right of self-determination should be given to the Afghan people."

But some warn that no other group may be able to control Afghanistan.

"If (the Taliban) goes, there will be anarchy and turmoil," said Yaqoub Sharafat, a writer for the Afghan Islamic Press. "People will lose their honor and dignity. Their homes and cities will be looted. That's why even those who oppose the Taliban don't want to see them toppled, especially at the hands of foreign aggressors."

-- CNN Correspondents Mike Chinoy, Steve Harrigan, Chris Burns and David Ensor contributed to this report.

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