N. Alliance claims new advances

Afghan opposition reports capture of northeastern city

`Quite a turnaround'

Taliban said to lose key strongholds in several provinces

War On Terrorism


CHAGATAI, Afghanistan -- Forces opposed to the Taliban said yesterday that they had captured the northeastern city of Taloqan, their second apparent victory in three days, as their leaders reported fresh gains across the north of the country.

Northern Alliance leaders said their soldiers had entered Taloqan without firing a shot after making a deal with the local Taliban warlord to switch sides. The warlord, identified as Abdullah Gard, and Northern Alliance leaders closed the deal before sunset yesterday, and the alliance soldiers marched into the city, the opposition leaders said.

The Bush administration spoke with guarded optimism yesterday about the recent progress.

"It seems quite clear that opposition forces have taken Mazar-e Sharif, although we'll have to watch that, I think, for another day or two to be absolutely sure," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "And it seems like they're on the move in other parts of the country, as well, and they are now speaking of moving across the Shomali Plain toward Kabul.

"So I think that there's been quite a turnaround in the war in the last week or so," he added.

"In Allah's name, we have captured the city of Taloqan," said Daoud Khan, the senior Northern Alliance commander whose troops had surrounded the city after barely 24 hours of fighting in the nearby hills. He spoke by satellite telephone from his post just outside the city.

"My men are inside the city now," Khan said, "and I am going to join them."

Khan's claim, reiterated here by the alliance's deputy defense minister, Atiqullah Baryalai, could not be verified firsthand. Assuming that it is valid and the deal with Gard holds, Taloqan would be the second major city to fall to the Northern Alliance in three days.

Alliance officials have been talking about advancing toward Kabul but have promised not to enter the city unless there is a security vacuum there.

The Taliban garrison in Mazar-e Sharif, a strategically situated city in north-central Afghanistan, fled before the advancing forces of the alliance Friday.

The apparent surrender of Taloqan sets the stage for new moves from two directions against the nearby city of Qonduz, about 35 miles west of Taloqan. Thousands of Taliban soldiers who fled Mazar-e Sharif appear to be heading there, pursued by alliance forces. Alliance commanders say they intend to crush the Taliban between the two advancing armies, one moving westward from Taloqan, the other eastward from Mazar-e Sharif.

"The Taliban soldiers are trapped," Khan said.

As the American-led campaign against the Taliban entered its 35th day, opposition leaders said their forces had scored new victories in the northern and western parts of the country. They said yesterday that their forces had captured Qala-i Nau, the capital of Badghis province in western Afghanistan, and that fighting was raging less than 15 miles outside Herat, a main city in the west.

Opposition leaders said fighting had also begun for Bamian, a provincial capital in central Afghanistan, after the decision by the Taliban governor there, Mullah Muhammad Islam, to switch sides. They said he had announced his decision on Radio Meshed, the Iranian radio station heard throughout Afghanistan. They said their fighters had also captured several Taliban strongholds in Baghlan, Samangan and Takhar provinces yesterday.

It was not possible to verify all of those claims. But the Afghan Islamic Press, a Taliban news outlet based in Pakistan, quoted an unnamed Taliban official yesterday as confirming the loss of five northern provinces after what he said was a "strategic withdrawal" intended to avoid casualties and consolidate forces.

"Our forces are regrouping," the spokesman said.

The apparent success of opposition forces across northern Afghanistan appears likely to bolster the U.S.-led campaign to topple the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden, whom the United States accuses of being behind the terror attacks Sept. 11 in New York and Washington. And it moves the Northern Alliance, once holed up a tiny corner of northeastern Afghanistan, a step closer to its goal of uniting the major cities of the north, from Herat in the west to Taloqan in the east, under its control. An aide to alliance leader Ismail Khan said his forces were preparing to lay siege to Herat, and alliance officials in Washington said that was the next objective.

Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance's foreign minister, exulted in his group's recent gains.

"The importance of this big defeat for the Taliban, dramatic defeat for the Taliban, is not only that they have lost large areas, but they have lost their main fighting force," he said.

The alliance's reported gains followed those reported Saturday, when opposition leaders said they had captured three provincial capitals in northern Afghanistan and cut off the retreat of Taliban forces fleeing Mazar-e Sharif for Kabul.

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