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RESPONSE TO TERROR | MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC FRONTS

Afghan Opposition Seizes Key City

Campaign: Taliban concedes loss of Mazar-i-Sharif to Northern Alliance. Streets Resident says mood is 'like a holiday.'

November 10, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS and JOHN HENDREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TERMEZ, Uzbekistan — Opposition forces battled their way into the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday, sending Taliban forces fleeing in a conquest that marks the biggest victory in the monthlong war in Afghanistan.

By this morning, residents said that the flag of the opposition forces was flying throughout the city and that music--long forbidden by the Taliban--was blaring in the streets. The Northern Alliance's radio station, Radio Balkh, was back on the air.

"It's like a holiday," a shopkeeper in central Mazar-i-Sharif said by telephone this morning. "Everyone is coming into the city center. They are almost dancing in the streets."

In Kabul, the capital, Taliban Defense Minister Obaidulla confirmed that the militia had lost control of the strategic northern city.

"Mazar-i-Sharif has fallen," announced Mohammed HashamSaad, the ambassador for the Northern Alliance in neighboring Uzbekistan.

Despite the Taliban's concession, the Pentagon wouldn't confirm the alliance's seizure of the city. Earlier, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke called the reports of the capture "encouraging."

By this morning, commanders said they were in complete control of the city, including the former Taliban command center and the airport. They said they had also chased the retreating Taliban more than 15 miles to the east and were strengthening positions around a strategic crossroads where the road to Kabul intersects the road north to Uzbekistan.

"The city was captured quietly," Khoji Habib, a top deputy to Northern Alliance commander Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, said by satellite phone from Mazar-i-Sharif. "After we entered, there was hardly any shooting."

The capture of Mazar-i-Sharif has enormous symbolic value for the Northern Alliance, which until 1998 used the city as its de facto capital.

At a Pentagon briefing Friday, Clarke described the city as a potential land bridge linking alliance troops to humanitarian aid and other--presumably military--supplies in Uzbekistan. Alliance leaders said they expect the Uzbeks to open a bridge soon that has remained closed to Afghanistan since the Taliban seized control of the city in 1998.

The city, just 20 miles from the border with Uzbekistan, has long served as an important transportation and trade route, lying on Afghanistan's main north-south corridor.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, many government officials and intellectuals fled north to Mazar-i-Sharif, making it the center of the anti-Taliban opposition. Since then, control of the ethnically mixed city has changed hands three times.

The Northern Alliance is also facing off against the Taliban north of Kabul. U.S. bombing of Taliban positions along that front has intensified steadily over the past few days. Bombing started again today about 6 a.m. The bombing appeared to be concentrated on an area between the front-line Bagram air base, which is held by the Northern Alliance, and the strategic Tota Khan ridge, where Taliban tanks and artillery have a clear shot at the air base and the main road to Kabul.

During a pause in the bombing Friday night, Taliban soldiers fired rockets and heavy mortar shells at opposition positions in Rabat, as if to say the Taliban still had some fight left.

The latest bombing came amid signs that the alliance may be moving closer to launching an offensive to surround the capital.

Gen. Abdul Basir, who commands troops in the peaceful Salang Pass far from the front lines, paid a surprise visit to troops near the front with the local commander, Gen. Haji Mohammed Almas. It was their second tour of the front together in as many days.

Basir, like most alliance fighters, was sharply critical of the U.S. air campaign during its first several weeks. But now he pays it the highest compliment: The frequent, heavy and accurate bombing is better, Basir said, than the former Soviet Union managed in its 1979-1989 occupation.

To the architects of the U.S. air campaign, capturing Mazar-i-Sharif shows gains for the monthlong effort before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins sometime next week and winter chills the front lines until spring.

Military leaders have declined to telegraph their intentions, but Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz told reporters Friday that the United States would be "sensitive" to Muslim concerns. But if they could capture Osama bin Laden, believed to have directed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or his associates, "it wouldn't matter to me whether it was Christmas or Hanukkah or Ramadan, we have to do it," Wolfowitz added.

While encouraged by Northern Alliance gains in Mazar-i-Sharif, Defense Department officials have cautioned that the key to overthrowing the Taliban is controlling southern Afghanistan. That would likely require support from at least some of the ethnic Pushtuns that dominate both the Taliban and the nation. Many Pushtuns distrust the Northern Alliance, which is mostly composed of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks.

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