Taliban pull back to Kabul after losing key city

Sunday, November 11, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan -- After abandoning a key northern city, Taliban forces retreated south Saturday toward the capital, Kabul, where the opposition threatened to launch a major attack within days. Opposition forces claimed to have seized three provincial capitals in what may signal the collapse of Islamic militia's rule in the north.

American B-52 bombers and other warplanes were in action Saturday over the front north of Kabul.

The fast-moving events marked a major shift in the fortunes of the fractious northern-based opposition, which relied on American airpower to seize Mazar-e-Sharif and give the U.S.-led coalition its first major victory since the start of the bombing campaign Oct. 7.

If the three provincial capitals have fallen -- the opposition claims could not be independently verified -- the Taliban may have decided to abandon large swaths of territory populated by ethnic minorities in the north and redeploy their forces southward to defend Kabul and other strongholds of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group.

Anti-Taliban troops who were massed at the front about 30 miles north of Kabul cheered at reports of Mazar-e-Sharif's fall, with villagers crowding around radios to head the news.

Aiming for Kabul

Alim Khan, a northern alliance commander there, said anti-Taliban forces would launch a major attack on the capital within three days. He said that 1,000 opposition troops would assemble Sunday at Bagram, site of an opposition-controlled air base near the front line.

Mohammad Afzal Amon, the commander of the opposition's elite Zarbati troops north of Kabul, said 600 fighters had been sent to his area since the victory in Mazar-e-Sharif.

But the opposition would likely face a much tougher battle for Kabul, a city of about 1 million people, than they it did at Mazar-e-Sharif. Taliban forces are more numerous and the terrain more mountainous. And the United States -- whose warplanes would be vital to any advance -- has expressed reservations about the alliance taking the capital.

In Kabul, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia confirmed losing Mazar-e-Sharif and said their forces withdrew rather than risk the destruction of the city of about 200,000.

In other developments:

Diplomats from the United States, Russia and six other nations working at the United Nations to find a political solution in Afghanistan welcomed a general amnesty that opposition forces offered to Taliban supporters in Mazar-e-Sharif when they took control of the city.

Suspected terrorist Mohammed Atta contacted an Iraqi agent with plans to blow up the Radio Free Europe building in Prague several months before the terrorist attacks in the United States, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman told CNN.

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