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Battle for Mazar-i-Sharif rages on, Taliban rush reinforcements

Press Trust of India/Agence France-Presse

Posted: Nov 09, 2001 at 1426 hrs IST

Afghanistan's Taliban militia rushed reinforcements to the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif where a bloody battle was shaping up against attacking Opposition forces, a Taliban spokesman said on Friday.

The Opposition reported renewed US bombing around Mazar-i-Sharif. Meanwhile US officials in Washington said they were weighing all options, including throwing more American ground troops into the battle.

The Opposition Northern Alliance claimed a series of breakthroughs this week in their drive towards the provincial capital, the first big prize in the month-old US-led military offensive in Afghanistan.

One Northern Alliance commander said his men had dug in about 20 kilometers South of Mazar-i-Sharif, while another claimed to have moved to within seven kilometers northwest of the city.

Abdul Henan Hemat, Chief of the Taliban's Bakhter information agency, said the Islamic militia had bolstered its positions in Mazar-i-Sharif, a potential "land bridge" for supplies and us troops from nearby Uzbekistan.

"The new reinforcements have arrived in Mazar and the Taliban will soon launch their counter-attack," Hemat told AFP. He did not say how many troops the militia had in place.

Hemat said US planes were bombing a main road leading north to Mazar-i-Sharif in the hope of knocking out convoys of Taliban troops streaming to the looming battle.

He said the Taliban repulsed an Opposition attack about70 kilometers south of Mazar-i-Sharif, and "dozens of Opposition bodies were left on the battlefield".

A spokesman for the Northern Alliance reported scattered fighting about 20 kilometers South of the city early on Friday with some Taliban, as well as Opposition, troops battling on horseback.

The spokesman, Qari Qudratullah, said US planes renewed their pounding of Taliban positions in the area in support of the drive by the Opposition force, which he estimated had grown from 5,000 to 10,000 men as locals join in.

A Washington spokesman for Abdul Rashid Dostam, a Northern Alliance commander moving northwest of Mazar-i-Sharif, said the force had made "tremendous" advances in recent days. "He has also received defections of senior Taliban commanders and the number of people that have defected in the last 24 hours is 300 Taliban troops," said the spokesman, Philip Smith.

But US officials were more cautious in their assessment of the drive by anti-Taliban forces—which are outnumbered, poorly equipped and divided by ethnic rivalries.

Army General Tommy Franks, Commander of the US military campaign in Afghanistan, said on Thursday in Washington that there was "a big fight" near Mazar-i-Sharif.

But he added: "it's a bit early for US to characterise this as the success that will enable our establishment of the land bridge."

Asked if the United States was prepared to commit ground troops in larger numbers, Franks said, "We will not take off the table the possibility of the use of ground forces—not ours—and we won't take off the table the potential use of coalition offered forces."

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