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Afghanistan: Battle Continues For Control Of Fortress

Mazar-i-Sharif, 27 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Reports from northern Afghanistan say Northern Alliance forces are continuing to battle rebel Taliban troops today for control of the fortress of Qala-i-Jangi. There are reports of U.S. warplanes resuming strikes on the fortress in a bid to help the Alliance. The Taliban troops began an armed uprising on 25 November after surrendering to the Alliance.

They smuggled weapons into the prison fortress near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and tried to fight their way out.

Northern Alliance Commander Shujan Uddin said yesterday as many as 400 prisoners -- mostly Chechens, Pakistanis and Arabs -- had died in the fortress since the uprising started.

To the west, in Mazar-i-Sharif, U.S. air strikes and alliance fighters continued to crush rebel Taliban soldiers. Five members of a U.S. special operations force were injured when U.S. airplanes dropped a bomb near them in an attempt to control the uprising at a fortress.

They were airlifted to Uzbekistan for initial medical treatment and are expected to be transferred to a U.S. base in Germany.

A spokesman for the U.S. Central Command says two U.S. fighter jets hit an armored column yesterday near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

Major Brad Lowell said U.S. marine helicopter gunships were in the area, but did not fire on the armored vehicles. The operation occurred shortly after the Marines seized an air base near Kandahar.

Earlier, Marine spokesman Captain David Romley said the helicopters had attacked 15 tanks and armored personnel carriers and destroyed some of them.

Romley did not say who manned the vehicles. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that the Marines were a vanguard force that would be used to pressure Taliban and Al-Qaeda troops. Rumsfeld defined their mission this way: "Some U.S. marines are now on the ground in the southern portion of Afghanistan. More are joining them. They are not an occupying force. Their purpose is to establish a forward base of operations to help pressure the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, to prevent Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists from moving freely about the country."

In Kondoz, meanwhile, Northern Alliance troops said they were consolidating their hold on the city. Delegates from four Afghan groups begin a conference in Bonn, Germany today on a post-Taliban government for Afghanistan.

Some 30 delegates are expected to attend the UN-sponsored conference at a secluded luxury hotel. The opposition Northern Alliance and representatives of the exiled former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, will have the most seats at the negotiating table.

UN officials hope the talks will yield agreement on the framework for an interim government and a security mechanism for Afghanistan.

The talks are expected to last at least a week. Delegates have expressed hope the conference will help to form an interim council that could pave the way for a coalition government representing all of Afghanistan's many ethnic groups.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is expected to open the conference with a speech urging Afghans to seize the moment to forge peace.

The talks will then break into smaller groups and discussion rounds in which UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi will try to find a consensus on an temporary administration to rule in Kabul.