Taliban Under Siege as Fighting Rages in North

Published September 25th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

The Taliban's bid to cling to power in Afghanistan suffered a double setback Tuesday as opposition forces gained ground in the north and former ally Saudi Arabia publicly washed its hands of the Islamic militia. 

Emboldened by the massive buildup of US forces around the country, troops of the Northern Alliance opposition captured several villages in fierce overnight battles and claimed that at least one Taliban commander had defected. 

The opposition offensives came as Saudi Arabia announced it was cutting diplomatic ties with the Taliban in response to intense US pressure to isolate the regime which has sheltered Osama bin Laden for the last five years. 

Bin Laden is wanted by the United States in connection with a string of terrorist atrocities culminating in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. 

The Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar again said bin Laden was incapable of planning the sort of sophisticated suicide hijackings which leveled the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon two weeks ago. 

In a message to the American people, he added that the attacks were meant to avenge the United States' "cruel policies." 

"The American people must know that the sad events that took place recently were the result of the their government's wrong policies," he said in the message, delivered through the Afghan Islamic Press in Pakistan. 

"Your government is perpetrating all sorts of atrocities in Muslim countries. Instead of supporting your government's policies you should urge your government to reconsider their wrong and cruel policies," he said. 

"The recent sad event in America was the result of these cruel policies and was meant to avenge this cruelty," he said, without claiming to know who was responsible. 

In London British Prime Minister Tony Blair bluntly warned the Taliban to hand over bin Laden or face war. 

"If they stand in the way of bringing bin Laden to account, they are every bit as much our enemy as bin Laden himself," he said. 

With the cutting of Saudi Arabia's ties, Pakistan is now the only country in the world to recognize the Taliban, although Islamabad no longer has any diplomats in Kabul. The United Arab Emirates cut its ties on Saturday. 

The opposition said clashes flared in three provinces across the Taliban-held north of the country, near the borders with Uzbekistan, where US forces are already believed to be based, and Tajikistan, which is guarded by thousands of Russian soldiers. 

Spokesman Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem told AFP from near the frontline that a pro-Taliban commander, Abdul Samad, defected along with an unknown number of armed men Monday, somewhere to the west of the strategic Dara-e-Souf valley in Samangan province. 

Taliban officials, who Monday claimed to have mobilized 300,000 men in preparation for an all-out war, confirmed the opposition gains, but said they were exaggerated. 

Pakistan, meanwhile, publicly signaled its opposition to the international community pumping money and arms into the Northern Alliance, which does not represent the Pashtun ethnic majority in Afghanistan. 

"We fear that any such decision on the part of any foreign power to give assistance to one side or another would be a recipe for great suffering for the people of Afghanistan," Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said. 

Despite the quickening tempo of the drums of war, there were signs of public panic over impending US strikes subsiding. 

Tens of thousands of people have fled from Afghan towns and cities to rural areas or towards the closed borders of Pakistan and Iran in the last week. 

But in Kabul on Tuesday there were signs of people returning, apparently more confidant that residential areas would not be targeted. 

After several days in which the atmosphere in the city has been tense and somber, the mood on the streets seemed to be lighter with more people out and about and more shops open. 

"We went to Logar [the province south of Kabul] but we decided to come back," Abdul Haq, a 42-year-old Kabuli told AFP.  

"At the beginning people believed that the United States would attack Kabul and that residential areas would not be spared but now it does not seem so sure that will happen." 

Ajmal Jamal, 28, who works as a money changer, moved his family towards the border near Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan but changed his mind after hearing reports that Pakistan had closed its border crossing at Torkham. 

"People at Torkham were badly treated so I decided to return home," he said. "In the end I decided it would be better to live under rockets here in our own country than in a refugee camp in Peshawar." 

In Islamabad, UN spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker painted a bleaker picture of the situation in Kabul, saying "up to 50 percent" of the Afghan capital's population had reportedly fled to rural areas. 

Up to 20,000 Afghans, most of whom have fled from the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, were waiting near the Chaman border point in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, but its scheduled opening Tuesday was held up by last-minute security concerns. 

Aid organizations fear the total exodus from Afghanistan if there are US strikes could top one million people. 

In Kabul, the local currency, the Afghani, which plunged as low as 79,000 to the dollar last week as an attack appeared imminent, recovered to around 58,000. 

In one hopeful development, the UN World Food Program announced that it would resuming shipments of food into Afghanistan, which were suspended on September 12. 

The WFP estimates that some 1.6 million Afghans in the northern provinces will run out of food if they do not receive additional supplies -- ISLAMABAD (AFP)

© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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