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Increased Fighting Reported Around Mazar-e-Sharif

Northern Alliance commander Ustad Attah from the front line today, said, ”The situation is very good for us and very bad for the Taliban,”

“Each day they are becoming weaker … we can move very soon to Mazar-e-Sharif.”

Opposition forces said they had advanced to within four miles of Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban’s news agency countered that the Northern Alliance was still 15 miles from the city.

To capture Mazar-e-Sharif, the second largest city in Afghanistan, would be a crucial victory for the Northern Alliance because it would cut off a key Taliban supply route to Kabul and provide a major bridge for moving humanitarian materials to refugees in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon confirmed renewed fighting had escalated around Mazar-e-Sharif, but would not say that a Northern Alliance victory was near.

“There is a big fight that is going on in the vicinity of Mazar-e-Sharif,” Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command in Afghanistan, said at today’s Pentagon briefing, but added that “it’s a bit early to characterize this as the success.”

Franks rejected criticism that the military campaign has been too slow and ineffective to date.

“Do I believe that this campaign was too timid? Absolutely not,” Franks said. “We like the progress we have made to this point.”

Franks did not offer specific information regarding Taliban losses, but said he believes Taliban military forces have been “torn asunder” and have had difficulty communicating and planning.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Wednesday that he believes the airstrikes have killed scores of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, but acknowledged that between 40,000 and 50,000 al-Qaida and Taliban troops are still operating in Afghanistan.

U.S. jets pummeled Taliban positions along the front lines north of Kabul Thursday afternoon, striking at targets around the town Qarabagh and three other Taliban-controlled villages, the Associated Press reported.

The Afghan Islamic Press, based in Pakistan, reported that bombs fell on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan, and that there were 27 bombing raids in the western province of Herat.

Franks and Rumsfeld reaffirmed that Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, is not the main focus of the military campaign.

“We have not said Osama bin Laden is a target in this effort,” Franks said, stressing that the al-Qaida network is a larger goal than its leader.

“We’ll find [bin Laden],” Rumsfeld told Jim Lehrer. “On the other hand, he could show up today, dead, and I’d be delighted. But al-Qaida would still exist.”

Franks and Rumsfeld still will not predict whether a U.S.-led ground war will be necessary, but they will not rule it out.

“As we stand where we are now, we want to keep all the options open,” Franks said.

The Pentagon announced Thursday that it was planning to send out the aircraft carrier USS John Stennis to replace the USS Carl Vinson in waters near Afghanistan. The Stennis will leave from San Diego ahead of its scheduled January departure so as to keep three American carriers operating simultaneously in the Afghan region.

The Vinson, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the USS Kitty Hawk are the three carriers currently stationed in the Indian ocean and gulf region. The Kitty Hawk is used primarily for special operations troops, while the Carl Vinson and Theodore Roosevelt are used for the round-the-clock air strikes against Taliban and al-Qaida targets.

A U.S. sailor fell from the Kitty Hawk Wednesday, and a search for him is in progress.

Musharraf Warns of Hostility to Campaign

In London today, British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to discuss the U.S.-led military campaign and Pakistan’s role in the anti-terrorism coalition.

While Blair asserted that it would likely be necessary to continue bombing into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins mid-November, Musharraf repeated his concerns that such actions might breed greater hostility against the United States among Muslims.

“I would just like to say that the sensitivities of the month of Ramadan have to be considered in the decisions of the military campaign,” said Musharraf.

Musharraf also warned that reports of civilian casualties are raising suspicions that the military campaign is unjust.

“It is being perceived, in the whole world, as if this is a war against the poor, miserable, innocent people of Afghanistan,” he told reporters in Paris.

But Musharraf, who has allowed U.S. forces to use Pakistani bases for search and rescue missions into Afghanistan, still voiced his full support for the war on terrorism.

“Pakistan has taken a very deliberate, considered decision to be part of the coalition,” Musharraf said. “We will remain part of the coalition till the attainment of the strategic objective that we have set for ourselves.”

Pakistan, the only country with continued diplomatic ties to the Taliban, today ordered the Taliban’s sole foreign ambassador, Ambassador Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, to close the consulate in the southern port city of Karachi.

“They have to be withdrawn, so naturally they have to go back to Afghanistan,” Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan told a news conference, but gave no reason for the decision.

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