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Northern alliance claims capture of Herat
Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Anti-Taliban fighters seized the most important city in western Afghanistan on Monday and were closing in on the last Taliban stronghold in the north, opposition spokesmen said. Taliban fighters were fleeing positions along the front north of the capital.
In Kabul, residents could hear the steady roar of jets heading toward the front north of the capital Monday afternoon. Ambulances could be seen racing from the center of the city toward the front lines.
Opposition spokesman Mohammed Abil, speaking by satellite telephone, said anti-Taliban fighters entered the western city of Herat on Monday morning. An Iranian radio correspondent, broadcasting from Herat, said Taliban troops were fleeing the city and others appeared to be surrendering.
An official in the Taliban's Information Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "possibly Herat has collapsed." Herat sits along the main road to Kandahar -- more than 300 miles to the southeast -- which is the birthplace of the Taliban and home of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and Osama bin Laden.
Abil also reported that alliance forces captured northern Baghlan province and were preparing to move against the last Taliban bastion in the north -- Kunduz. Both areas are populated mostly by ethnic Pashtuns -- the same ethnic group as the Taliban -- while the rest of the north is largely Tajik, Uzbek and Shiite Muslim.
On the Kabul front, Abil said the opposition captured Qarabagh district, 15 miles north of the capital. Opposition forces pushed the Taliban back six miles along the old road to Kabul.
Truckloads of opposition fighters shouting "God is great" could be seen heading down the road to shore up the newly won opposition positions against any counterattack. Asked where the trucks were going, one opposition soldier -- Commander Adel -- shouted "to Kabul, to Kabul."
Jubilant opposition fighters near Jabal Saraj, about 30 miles north of Kabul, said Taliban soldiers in several key strongholds on the western side of the contested Shomali plain were surrendering.
Opposition soldiers in rear echelon posts north of Kabul, listening to radio communications among their colleagues farther forward, could hear them shouting "shoot them, shoot them" and issuing orders to capture four Taliban tanks.
Abil said opposition forces at some points along the Kabul front advanced nine miles in less than an hour, stopping only after meeting heavy Taliban resistance.
In Kabul itself, pickup trucks camouflaged with brown mud raced about, ferrying Taliban fighters to and from the front.
The speed of the Taliban collapse, which began Friday with the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, suggests that many local commanders and Taliban fighters are switching sides rather than offering stiff resistance.
In Mazar-e-Sharif, men could be seen lining up at barber shops to have their Taliban-mandated beards shaved off, women were discarding the all-encompassing burqas and music -- banned by the Taliban -- could be heard coming from cassette players in shops, according to the Afghan Islamic Press.
Abil said the northern alliance has sent radio messages to Taliban commanders and village elders urging them to hand over Pakistani, Arab and Chechen volunteers fighting with the Islamic militia.
"We want to take these foreigners alive to show who is fighting against us," he said. He claimed the greatest resistance was coming from the foreign fighters.
Within three days, the opposition has expanded its control from about 10 percent of the country to nearly half. It remained unclear whether the opposition could maintain that momentum as they approach Taliban strongholds in the southern Pashtun heartland.
In Islamabad, the Taliban's ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, acknowledged that the Islamic militia had withdrawn from seven northern provinces.
"The Islamic army of the Taliban withdrew from these provinces in an organized way to avoid civilian casualties," he said in Pakistan's capital Islamabad.
On the Kabul front, U.S. aircraft, including B-52 bombers, bombed Taliban positions Monday, drawing only sporadic anti-aircraft fire. Taliban and opposition fighters traded artillery and mortar fire that appeared heavier than in previous days.
The sudden shift of battlefield fortunes began Friday with the fall of the Taliban-controlled city of Mazar-e-Sharif, near the border with Uzbekistan. It was a boost for the U.S.-led coalition that seeks to topple the Taliban and hunt down bin Laden.
President Bush has urged the opposition not to take Kabul before a new, broad-based government could be formed, and some senior opposition figures have said they would stop short of entering the capital.
Abil said the opposition had no plans to enter Kabul. Other commanders, however, are eager to advance and regain the city they lost to the Taliban in 1996. It was unclear whether the opposition had gained so much momentum that an assault on capital was inevitable.
"We will have to enter Kabul," said Shahabuddin, sitting on an armored personnel carrier in Bagram, two miles from the front. "The Taliban will take people inside the city as hostages. It will be our job to defend the people."
Two French radio journalists and a German magazine reporter were killed Sunday when their convoy was hit in northeastern Takhar province, Radio France Internationale and RTL radio announced in Paris.
Johanne Sutton, an RFI journalist, and Pierre Billaud, a correspondent for RTL, were riding with armed vehicles and trucks that left the northern alliance headquarters in Khoja Bahauddin, near the Tajikistan border.
Volker Handloik, a free-lance reporter for Stern newsmagazine in Berlin, was also killed.
Washington wants the opposition to hold off on assaulting Kabul to avoid a repeat of factional fighting that destroyed the capital and killed an estimated 50,000 people from 1992 to 1996, when the opposition governed.
Developments on the battlefield were so fast-moving that many of the reports could not be immediately verified. Foreign journalists do not have access to many of the front lines and have been speaking to opposition commanders by satellite phone.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- AP correspondent Steven Gutkin also contributed to this report from Jabal Saraj, Afghanistan.