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Fighting, Looting Subside in Afghan Opposition Stronghold

September 13, 1997| From Times Wire Services

KABUL, Afghanistan — A fragile calm returned Friday to the streets of the besieged opposition stronghold, Mazar-i-Sharif, after days of looting by marauders and shelling by the Taliban religious army.

The quiet came after heavy shelling of Mazar-i-Sharif, about 200 miles north of Kabul, that began before dawn and continued until about noon, aid workers in the city said. There was no immediate word on casualties.

The city, seized briefly by the Taliban in May, serves as the base for the opposition alliance that controls the northern third of Afghanistan. Its fall would deliver most of Afghanistan to the Taliban, who already rule the southern two-thirds of the country.

An opposition spokesman said Friday that former Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, driven from Mazar-i-Sharif in May by a rival commander, had returned to Afghanistan. But his claim could not immediately be confirmed.

Warplanes attacked Mazar-i-Sharif in the morning, and one bomb landed near a hotel in the central part of the city, aid workers said.

Some residents returned to the streets after the shelling subsided, said the workers, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The opposition claimed to have pushed Taliban forces back to about 20 miles away. Aid workers said they believed that the fighting had become more distant Friday.

But a Taliban spokesman insisted that the front line remained the same and that fighting continued around the airport, about 10 miles east of the city.

The opposition was believed to hold the airport, but Taliban forces were within six miles and controlled the main road into the city.

Looting by armed men also eased Friday evening, after a week in which they ransacked offices and homes, forcing some aid agencies to post soldiers on roofs and gates.

In the regions they control, the Taliban have imposed a strict brand of Islam, barring most women from working and girls from school and requiring men to attend prayers.

In Kabul, the capital, a rocket fired by the opposition overshot the Kabul airport, which is being used as a base for bombers attacking Mazar-i-Sharif. The rocket slammed into some mud huts, killing at least one person and wounding another.

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