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Afghanistan: Opposition Claims Capture Of Mazar-i-Sharif

Mazar-i-Sharif; Washington, 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Northern Alliance forces say they have overrun Taliban defenses and entered the strategic Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif in a major attack launched following heavy U.S. bombing raids. Quoting unidentified Taliban officials, the Pakistan-based Islamic Press also reported that alliance forces advanced into the southern outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif.

In Washington, Defense Department officials said they are encouraged by the latest reports from the front. But Pentagon chief spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the reports could not yet be confirmed. "What we have seen is encouraging. We're not going to say more than that."

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair said the momentum "is now against the Taliban regime and the terrorist network."

One of the Northern Alliance commanders, Abdul Rashid Dostum, told RFE/RL from Mazar-i-Sharif that opposition troops -- many on horseback -- captured the city after a 90-minute battle.

"The situation in Mazar-i-Sharif is normal. I am speaking from inside the city. The lights are on. Life is as usual. People will spend this night cheering because the Taliban have left the city. The city is free, so people will live in peace."

Also today, news reports said that to the southeast of Mazar-i-Sharif, other Alliance forces backed by tanks amassed at the front line just north of the Afghan capital Kabul. The forces said they expected to further advance on the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban forces, which control about 85 percent of Afghanistan.

The U.S. has been bombing suspected terrorist camps and Taliban forces said to be harboring them for more than a month now. U.S. officials have named Saudi militant Osama bin Laden as the prime suspect in the 11 September suicide attacks that killed nearly 5,000 people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. U.S. planes also kept up intense air strikes against the Taliban north of Kabul today, and opposition commanders suggested that the long-awaited push toward the capital might be coming soon.