Opposition Ground Drive, US Air Attack, Gain Momentum

Published November 7th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Anti-Taliban military forces made new headway Wednesday in northern Afghanistan as US warplanes renewed their raids to keep up the momentum in their month-old war against terrorism. 

A day after claiming its biggest victory in the war, the opposition Northern Alliance pressed its drive towards the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, entering Sholgera district, a spokesman said. 

"Our mujahedin (holy warriors) are advancing. We are hoping to capture Mazar-i-Sharif as soon as possible," said Qari Qudratullah, a spokesman for commander Atta Mohammad. 

Sholgera is about 60 kilometers (36 miles) southwest of Mazar-i-Sharif and just north of the Keshendeh, one of three districts secured by the opposition on Tuesday in its most impressive victory to date. 

The Northern Alliance said it captured Keshendeh, Zari and Aq-Kupruk districts 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, after days of intense fighting and raids by US warplanes. 

Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem, another opposition spokesman, told AFP that 200 Taliban were killed and 300 had surrendered Tuesday, including a senior commander, in the battles. 

A Taliban official who declined to be named confirmed the loss of the three districts but said the militia was "preparing for a major ground battle to advance again." 

Another militia official said the Taliban were "preparing a major counter-attack and God willing we will be able to recapture all lost territory in a very short time." 

The Taliban denied a commander had been captured. 

The northern provinces of Balkh and Samangan have shaped up as a crucial battlefield in the month-old US campaign. They border Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, from where supplies and US troops could enter Afghanistan. 

There was no American bombing of Taliban front lines during the night, Qudratullah said. "The front lines have changed and are not clear enough for the US planes to safely attack. 

Abdul Henan Hemat, chief of the Taliban's Bakhter information agency in Kabul, said US warplanes were bombing Mazar-i-Sharif Wednesday but there was no ground fighting near the city. 

Further to the east, US warplanes kept up their attacks on Taliban positions near the border with Tajikistan. 

The first bombs fell just before 8:00 am (O3H30 GMT) on targets that were hit in six earlier attacks, according to an AFP correspondent in the town of Khwaja Bahauddin in Takhar province. 

The Taliban fired their anti-aircraft weapons some minutes after the first attack, but without much effect on the planes, flying high in a cloudless sky. 

The Northern Alliance fired several shells at Taliban lines overnight and early Wednesday, just before the American attacks. But there was no sign it was preparing an offensive in the area. 

US officials said, meanwhile, their air campaign has been growing in scope and effectiveness in the fight to topple the Taliban blamed for harboring suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. 

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday the number of daily US sorties had climbed to 120 in recent days, and operations were going "quite well" thanks to targeting guidance from special forces on the ground. 

"There is no question but that the better targeting information we have, the better the effect is on the ground," he told reporters in Washington. 

US forces have also started to use 15,000-pound (6,800 kilogram) "daisy cutter" bombs, the largest in the US arsenal. Two were dropped on Taliban forces in the past week, officials said. 

The United States categorically denied claims that Taliban forces shot down a US helicopter that crashed in Pakistan, killing four US soldiers on board. 

"There was no US helicopter shot down in Pakistan. There were not four or any other number of US servicemen killed in that non-shootdown," General Peter Pace said at the Pentagon. 

Officials in Pakistan's western Baluchistan province had said a US military helicopter crashed there early Monday -- KABUL, (AFP)  

© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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