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Taliban Fighters Strengthen Grip on N. Afghanistan

May 26, 1997| From Associated Press

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters tightened their hold on northern Afghanistan on Sunday and opened contacts with the few remaining pockets of resistance, saying they wanted peace after decades of war.

As dusk settled, 2,500 more Taliban soldiers rolled into this city promising to implement Islamic law. "Everything that is opposed to Islamic Sharia, we will stop," said Gul Mohammed, a soldier, referring to Islamic law.

The capture of this northern stronghold Saturday and the escape of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum to Turkey gave the Taliban control of all but two or three of Afghanistan's 29 provinces--or about 90% of the country.

Pakistan announced Sunday that it will formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government, becoming the first country to do so. Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan told reporters in Islamabad that Pakistan would send an ambassador to Mazar-i-Sharif today.

But Russia warned that it will intervene if fighting spreads across Afghanistan's northern border to the Central Asian republics, Itar-Tass news agency said.

From loudspeakers atop Mazar-i-Sharif's ancient mosque, defectors from Dostum's army hailed the defeat of the general they betrayed--defections which led to the collapse of Dostum's northern bastion.

"Don't be afraid. Open your shops. All is safe," said Majeed Rozi, one of the commanders who deserted Dostum barely a week ago.

Despite some looting, the streets in Mazar-i-Sharif were calm and free of fighting.

While the Taliban has plans to turn Afghanistan into a hard-line Islamic state, residents here Sunday were still exercising freedoms that have disappeared in other areas that have come under Taliban rule.

Shops that rent video cassettes remained open. Women moved freely on the streets.

At the same time, there were signs of stepped-up enforcement. Suspected thieves were beaten, while guards who had been unable to prevent robberies during Saturday's chaos also received blows.

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