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Northern alliance pushes to edge of Kabul, Taliban vow to fight
Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Opposition forces broke through Taliban front lines Monday and pushed to the gates of the capital, Kabul, after a string of stunning victories in northern Afghanistan. The ruling Islamic militia deployed tanks at entrances to the city, fearing an all-out assault.
Shouting "God is great," anti-Taliban troops rolled within 12 miles of Kabul on trucks carrying the green, white and black Afghan flag and displaying pictures of their slain commander, Ahmed Shah Massood.
The anti-Taliban forces, a coalition of factions and ethnic groups, capped their four-day dash across the north by overruning western Afghanistan's biggest city, Herat. Commanders said they were pushing toward Kunduz, the last Taliban-held city in the north.
The Taliban losses followed an intensive bombing campaign by the United States, and some of the militia's commanders switched sides once the opposition forces gained momentum.
President Bush launched the air campaign on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
The Taliban admitted their lines had collapsed around Kabul -- where the front had been stalemated for years -- but said they would fight for the capital.
"We have decided to defend Kabul," the Taliban ambassador to neighboring Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said in Islamabad. "It is true that the opposition breached our front line near Kabul, but we have erected another one and are strengthening our position."
The opposition claimed Taliban forces were fleeing Kabul. However, according to reporters in the city, there was no sign of any mass exodus, though a few senior Taliban officials appeared to have left.
Gen. Rashid Dostum, a northern alliance commander, said an opposition force of up to 300 fighters was ready to enter Kabul on Tuesday to "maintain order."
Dostum, speaking from the newly captured northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, told Turkey's private NTV television that the main body of opposition forces would hold off from entering the capital.
He said 15,000 former Taliban troops and some Taliban commanders had crossed over to the alliance during recent fighting.
Opposition fighters punched through Taliban defenses about noon Monday after a punishing attack by U.S. B-52 bombers. Taliban positions began to fall one by one along the main road into Kabul.
A senior opposition commander, Bismillah Khan, said his troops had halted their advance at Mir Bacha Kot, about 12 miles north of Kabul, and were awaiting orders.
"We are at the gate of Kabul," Khan declared. The alliance foreign minister, Abdullah, said another column had reached Shakar Dara -- southwest of Mir Bacha Kot and closer to the capital.
Shakar Dara "is the last stop," Abdullah, who uses one name, said at Jabal Saraj, 45 miles north of Kabul. "We stopped because we didn't want to advance into Kabul."
Bush has urged the opposition to avoid entering the city until a broad-based government can be organized to replace the Taliban, which has ruled most of Afghanistan since 1996.
However, little progress has been made in bringing together the disparate groups in Afghanistan's fractious, multiethnic society.
And the temptation to grab the capital may simply be too great for the opposition, which in four days has expanded its control from some 10 percent of the country to nearly half.
In Kabul, the Taliban deployed tanks on major routes leading into the city, and camouflaged pickup trucks raced through the streets ferrying armed Taliban.
Taliban fighters searched cars at major intersections throughout the city. Mobile anti-aircraft guns prowled the streets after sundown, and the roar of U.S. jets headed toward the front could be heard from time to time.
Shortly before sunset, a missile exploded along a residential street in the city's Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where several senior Taliban officials as well as Arabs, Chechens and Uzbeks live.
In other developments:
-- Two French radio reporters and a German magazine journalist were killed when they came under Taliban fire while traveling with opposition troops, their employers and colleagues said Monday.
-- Taliban judges indefinitely postponed the trial of eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, accused of spreading Christianity in Muslim Afghanistan.
Since the opposition captured the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday after intense American bombing, province after province in the north has fallen into alliance hands.
Dramatic turns in the war's balance are a traditional feature in Afghan fighting. Rival armies sometimes battle for months without a change -- until one side retreats, often because of a commander switching sides, and a large-scale rout ensues.
By Monday night, the Taliban appeared to have lost nearly all of the north except the province of Kunduz. Opposition commanders said they were advancing on the city of Kunduz, the provincial capital.
Kunduz's population is largely Pashtun, the country's largest ethnic group and the backbone of the Taliban movement. It will likely be tougher for the opposition -- made up of Uzbeks, Tajiks and other ethnic minorities that dominate the north -- to maintain its momentum in the south, the Pashtun heartland.
Early Monday, alliance forces entered Herat, the major city in western Afghanistan. Iranian TV, broadcasting from Herat, said in the evening that the opposition had control of the city.
Shiite Muslim Herat sits along a 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.
During the advance on Kabul, opposition tanks and artillery provided cover as soldiers charged, firing Kalashnikov rifles and rocket launchers.
Trucks brought forward hundreds of reinforcements, while other vehicles rolled in the opposite direction, evacuating the dead and the wounded as well as captured Taliban fighters.
Jubilant soldiers waved to each other and flashed thumbs-up signs as they drove to the front. Asked where he was going, a tank commander named Adel shouted back: "To Kabul, to Kabul."
In areas cleared of the Taliban, Afghans began adjusting to life without the harsh rules imposed by the Islamic militia.
In Mazar-e-Sharif, men lined up at barber shops to have their Taliban-mandated beards shaved, and music -- banned by the Taliban -- could be heard from stores, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.
Opposition spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said about half the city's women had discarded the all-covering burqas required by the Taliban. Some retained traditional scarves covering their hair, while others went bareheaded, he said.
It was clear, however, that the alliance was having trouble maintaining order. The United Nations said gunmen looted a U.N. food warehouse in Mazar-e-Sharif, and there were unconfirmed reports of "summary executions" after the city's fall.
The U.N. Children's Fund said an opposition commander seized a 10-truck convoy of aid that arrived in the city Saturday.
Elsewhere, returning refugees streamed back into villages that they had not seen in months or years in a day of celebration across northern Afghanistan.
After more than a year living in a tent, one refugee, Habib Allah, headed home to Khoja Ghaar, which fell Sunday -- accompanied by four little nephews.
"We will be home for Ramadan," he said, referring to the Muslim month of fasting that begins this weekend.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- AP correspondents Steven Gutkin in Jabal Saraj, Afghanistan and Ellen Knickmeyer in Khoja Ghaar, Afghanistan contributed to this report.