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Taliban Fleeing Last Strongholds; 8 Aid Workers Are Flown to Safety

War: The regime's fighters reportedly are retreating into the mountains. Newly active Pushtun fighters in the south lay siege to Kandahar.


WASHINGTON — Opposition forces claimed control of nearly all of Afghanistan on Wednesday amid signs that Taliban soldiers had fled to the hills to prepare for the kind of guerrilla warfare they once waged against Soviet troops.

U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces battled their way toward the Taliban's remaining enclaves of Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the south.

Newly active opposition forces from the dominant Pushtun ethnic group--from which the Taliban had drawn most of its support--opened a new front and reportedly seized the airport in Kandahar. Pentagon officials said intelligence reports appeared to confirm that Kandahar was under siege and that many Taliban fighters had left.

Early today, U.S. helicopters whisked eight foreign aid workers who had been held by the Taliban to safety in Pakistan. The eight, including two Americans, were picked up in a field about 50 miles south of Kabul.

Adding to the Taliban's woes, Pentagon officials said that U.S. bombs struck a building where Taliban leaders had gathered earlier this week. But they did not say whether Osama bin Laden was among those in the building when it was hit.

"There was a target with a significant number of leadership," a Defense Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

At a Pentagon briefing, Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, a senior official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "Anti-Taliban opposition groups in southern Afghanistan are rebelling against Taliban control, especially near Kandahar. There are a number of tribes--Pushtun tribes in the south--who would appear now to be opposing the Taliban."

Some local Taliban leaders reportedly defected to the opposition. But others sped off in provision-laden pickup trucks, heading toward the mountains that have concealed Afghan guerrillas for decades, Kandahar residents said.

If opposition forces capture and hold Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual center, that could mark the end of the ground war in Afghanistan, military analysts said. On Tuesday, the Northern Alliance swarmed into the Afghan capital, Kabul.

As the alliance's soldiers and police units kept order in the streets of Kabul on Wednesday, its officials took over key government offices, such as the Foreign and Interior ministries. The alliance insists that it wants to share power in a broad-based government, but it isn't waiting to assert its authority.

Once the country is in anti-Taliban hands, the U.S. campaign is likely to turn into a manhunt for Bin Laden and other leaders of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, who are believed to be bivouacked in Afghanistan's countless hills and caves. As the Pentagon seeks out other Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, military officials say lumbering B-52 bombers would be grounded in place of lighter F-15E fighter jets, A-10 Warthogs and Apache helicopters.

"It is . . . gratifying to see the Taliban fleeing and the people of Afghanistan getting their country back," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said during a visit to the site of the World Trade Center in New York, which was destroyed along with part of the Pentagon in the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks that prompted the war. "On the other hand, our task is to find the Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership, and we still have that ahead of us."

While Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney warned that a long campaign against terrorism lies ahead, other officials found it hard to restrain their enthusiasm.

"It would appear to us that they are abandoning the cities that they previously had control over," Stufflebeem said of the Taliban. "It's not clear exactly why they may be doing that. It may be that they are regrouping. It may be that they are abandoning and retreating."

Yet British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared the Taliban in "total collapse," and even Cheney departed from his cautious tone long enough to pronounce the Taliban "in retreat" throughout the country.

"They've lost their control over a major part of Afghanistan, they've lost control of most of the cities," the vice president said. "Many of their forces have been killed, captured or fled to the hills."

The momentum in the 5 1/2-week-old war shifted toward the opposition late last week when the Northern Alliance seized the northern crossroads town of Mazar-i-Sharif. Its fighters then swept across the northern half of the country and captured Kabul on Tuesday, outpacing political efforts to craft a post-Taliban government. The seizure of Kunduz, where lingering Taliban forces were surrounded by the Northern Alliance and cut off from reinforcements, appeared likely.

Until Wednesday, the U.S. had lacked a proxy army of Pushtuns, who dominate southern Afghanistan, to extend the gains of the Northern Alliance, which is composed primarily of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. That changed when Pushtun tribesmen moved on Kandahar.

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