Fighting Intensifies in Northern Afganistan

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JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan?The Afghan opposition claimed its fighters edged closer to the strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif on Wednesday, and U.S. special forces reported northern alliance fighters on horseback charged Taliban tanks and armored personnel carriers.

Officials of the ruling Taliban denied losing territory but acknowledged fighting was intense.

In Washington, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace said the fighting south of Mazar-e Sharif was “very fluid” and that the opposition appeared to be making progress. Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the alliance fighters: “They’re taking the war to their enemy and ours.”

Capturing Mazar-e-Sharif would be a major victory for the northern alliance because it would open supply corridors to neighboring countries Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and cut Taliban supply lines to the west of Afghanistan.

U.S. bombers were also in action Wednesday across northeastern Afghanistan, pounding Taliban artillery positions near the border with Tajikistan. Reporters at this village 45 miles north of Kabul could hear the roar of warplanes and the thud of distant explosions after sundown.

The private South Asia Dispatch Agency also reported air attacks around Kandahar in the south and Jalalabad in the east of the country.

After 10 days of heavy air attacks along the front lines south of Mazar-e-Sharif, opposition spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said the northern alliance had captured Shol Ghar district and that some opposition units were within 10 miles of the city.

In Kabul, Taliban officials denied losing Shol Ghar but said they were rushing 500 fresh troops to front lines south of Mazar-e-Sharif to block the opposition advance.

The claims could not be independently verified. The border with Uzbekistan, 35 miles north of Mazar-e-Sharif, is closed, and Western reporters in northern alliance controlled territory more than 150 miles to the east cannot reach the area without crossing Taliban lines. However, reporters stay in daily contact with commanders by telephone.

Pace confirmed that U.S. special forces teams were with opposition forces near Mazar e-Sharif “to help in directing airstrikes.” The general said the American soldiers reported cavalry charges, with opposition fighters on horses going against Taliban armor. “These folks are aggressive,” he said of the alliance.

The commander of Shiite Muslim fighters in the alliance, Mohammed Mohaqik, said opposition officers would confer over the next two days on plans to capture Mazar-e Sharif without incurring large civilian casualties.

President Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the ruling Taliban militia refused to hand over Osama bin Laden for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, reportedly said Wednesday that the Taliban will never hand over bin Laden and will fight America if necessary for 100 years. Zaeef made his comments during a dinner for Pakistani editors in Islamabad; one of those who attended provided details on condition of anonymity.

Earlier, Pakistan told Zaeef to stop using the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad for propaganda against any third country after a series of news conferences in which he accused the United States of “terrorism” and “genocide” in the bombing of Afghanistan.