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Opposition Claims Control of Mazar-e-Sharif

The city would open an essential supply route for those opposed to Taliban rule from neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to opposition troops.

Mazar-e-Sharif’s airport could also serve as a base for continued airstrikes. The city would give U.S.-led troops a staging ground from which to continue their attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida targets.

“We’ve seen reports where the Taliban may have retreated from an area,” U.S. Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem said this morning. He said he could not confirm the reports though, saying “there’s a lot of dust in the air right now. There are skirmishes across these various fronts and with that dust in the air it’s very hard to tell what’s exactly going on.”

But a Northern Alliance commander was more definitive.

“The city of Mazar-e Sharif is captured,” Ahmad Khan, a chief commander of the Northern Alliance, said.

According to the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press, the Taliban confirmed that opposition troops had entered southern Mazar-e-Sharif following “heavy American bombing.” Also according to the agency, Taliban troops were gathering outside the city.

The fall of Mazar-e-Sharif would be the biggest breakthrough for the opposition since the U.S. began its air strikes on Afghanistan on Oct. 7.

Northern Alliance officials are hoping that Taliban soldiers in and around Mazar-e-Sharif will defect to join their side in the fighting. Mazar-e-Sharif’s population is largely Uzbek and Tajik — the same ethnic groups that make up the majority of the opposition forces. Taliban troops are mostly ethnic Pashtun, Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic group.

In other military news, U.S. warplanes struck Taliban positions around Mazar-e-Sharif and north of Kabul on Friday. Several explosions resounded on the outskirts of the capital where Taliban soldiers fought back with anti-aircraft guns for the first time in several days.

U.S. jets and B-52 bombers repeatedly hit Taliban targets north of Kabul and near Kandahar early Friday and around Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital.

Opposition forces are planning an offensive to capture Kabul, but has not tried to move against the Taliban forces, which are heavily massed north of the capital.

The U.S.-led coalition is also concerned about potential political backlash if anti-Taliban forces conquer Kabul, as such action could jeopardize efforts to establish a broadbased government to replace the militant Taliban regime.

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