Taliban city falls to rebels

Northern Alliance captures airport and Mazar-e Sharif

Taliban troops withdraw

In friendly hands, town could provide U.S. with vital base

November 10, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Northern Alliance said yesterday that its troops had captured the strategic northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e Sharif from the Taliban.

Though the Pentagon was reluctant to back up the claim, hours later the Taliban conceded defeat in an interview with Reuters.

"Yes, Mazar has gone," Taliban Defense Minister Obaidullah Akhund acknowledged in the brief interview. "The city and its airport are with the opposition."

Abdul Habib Seraj, the consul general for the Afghan mission to the United Nations, said he was told by Northern Alliance commanders that 500 Taliban soldiers were killed in the battle for Mazar-e Sharif and 200 had been captured. Others were fleeing south to the town of Samangan, he said.

The ancient city straddles major supply routes between Uzbekistan and the Afghan capital, Kabul, and its loss, after 35 days of U.S. attacks, is a major blow to the Taliban.

The fall of Mazar-e Sharif to forces allied with the United States would allow the Pentagon to begin sending greater amounts of military and humanitarian supplies overland from Uzbekistan, strengthening the effort to oust the ruling Taliban.

Last night, the Pentagon declined to comment until it could determine that the city had in fact been seized and was securely in the alliance's hands. U.S. Special Operations forces, who have been on the ground with various groups of rebels for several weeks, would help in verifying that claim, officials said.

"What we have seen is encouraging," said Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke. But she called the situation "fluid" and said the Pentagon would wait another day or two before issuing comment.

"We don't know enough yet to know what's been taken, will it be held and then therefore will there be more movement from that," said Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"There's a lot of dust in the air right now" in Mazar-e Sharif, he added. "And it's hard to tell what is the likely outcome, based on the battle as you see it at the moment."

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press earlier that opposition forces had entered the city.

He said the fighting was continuing, but "really, it's the Taliban fleeing the city in droves."

Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt battle group, was quoted as saying today that Navy and Marine planes had attacked the retreating columns to "try to take out as much as we can as they [the Taliban] try to fall back and regroup ... so that they're not able to set up new positions,

Northern Alliance forces have been fighting the Taliban for control of the city for more than three years.

With the monthlong U.S.-led bombing campaign targeting Taliban front lines, the rebels were able to make progress. On Thursday, more than half of all combat sorties were directed at Mazar-e Sharif, Pentagon officials said.

The loss of Mazar-e Sharif would be both a strategic and psychological setback for the Taliban, according to Pentagon officials and U.S. lawmakers.

The city lies at important crossroads leading south and west and would be the first major Afghan city to fall into rebel hands. "So for the Taliban to lose any city is positive," said Stufflebeem.

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the region, said this week that Mazar-e Sharif would provide "a land bridge up to Uzbekistan" to bring in supplies and relief.

Besides assisting the Northern Alliance with ammunition, small arms and even horse feed, the United States has faced a daunting challenge getting food and shelter to refugees in the increasingly frigid mountainous area.

Although the Pentagon has airdropped about 1.4 million individual humanitarian rations during the past several weeks, delivery of aid "is going to be much more efficient and much more successful if done overland," said Stufflebeem.

He acknowledged that some type of security force would be necessary to secure a land route but offered no details.

One possibility might be the use of troops from countries allied with the United States, in addition to U.S. forces already in the region.

There are U.S. Special Operations forces in northern Afghanistan and more than 1,000 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division nearby at an air base in southern Uzbekistan.

"To have a land bridge established from one country to another requires security," he said. "It would be more than U.S. forces in the consideration of doing that."

The U.S.-led bombing campaign has dropped more than 8,000 bombs and missiles on targets of the Taliban military and the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, according to the Pentagon.

On Thursday, Stufflebeem said, the aerial bombardment continued to "degrade and destroy" Taliban and al-Qaida command and control facilities, especially caves and tunnels. Targets were grouped around Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e Sharif.

About 78 strike aircraft were used, including about 60 carrier-based warplanes and as many as 10 long-range bombers. The rest were land-based tactical jets.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has approved the Navy's plan to send the San Diego-based aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to the Arabian Sea ahead of schedule, replacing the USS Carl Vinson.

The Stennis had been scheduled to depart in January. F-14 and F/A-18 fighters flying from the Vinson and the Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea have been providing a large share of the daily attack missions over Afghanistan.

Other warplanes have been flying from land bases on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean and in Oman and Kuwait.

Planes from the USS Kitty Hawk have also started helping out with strike missions in recent days, a defense official said yesterday.

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