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Afghanistan: U.S. Targets Taliban Front As Diplomatic Push Continues

The United States increased its military pressure on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban during the weekend by launching air strikes on the regime's frontline positions near Kabul and by staging a series of commando raids in the south of the country. U.S. troops also have been working on the ground with Northern Alliance opposition forces near the Taliban-controlled northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. As RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports, the latest military developments come amid a flurry of international diplomatic activity over the creation of a post-Taliban government.

Prague, 22 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. warplanes are continuing to target Taliban frontline positions north of Kabul today after a weekend that included the heaviest air strikes there to date in the 15-day-old U.S.-led military campaign.

Correspondents at the opposition Northern Alliance-controlled Bagram airbase watched U.S. planes conduct a series of bombing raids on the Taliban front yesterday, overnight, and early today.

Bagram airbase is situated north of Kabul and just two kilometers from the Taliban front.

In an indication of apparent coordination between the Northern Alliance and the U.S. military, Western reporters say regional Northern Alliance commanders arrived at Bagram airbase just minutes before yesterday's strikes and watched from the ruins of a control tower.

Reporters are monitoring the situation closely from Bagram for signs of increased U.S. strikes expected before the Northern Alliance launches its threatened assault on Kabul.

Despite repeated requests from the Northern Alliance for close air support to help their advance on the capital, the United States had left the Taliban defenses north of Kabul largely intact until recent days. Northern Alliance leaders say they want the Taliban's defenses to be degraded further by U.S. air strikes before they launch their assault.

Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Afghan president who was forced to flee Kabul when the Taliban seized the city five years ago, is among those calling for more targeting along the front: "Our troops are ready to advance and in the near future our commanders will decide about the advance on Tahar and Kabul."

But in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States is still "continuing discussion" about whether an immediate Northern Alliance march into Kabul would be "the best thing." The United States and Britain have been reluctant to help the alliance seize Kabul until a broad-based government is in place to replace the Taliban.

There were signs of progress over the weekend in the international diplomatic push to build a post-Taliban government.

On his way back to Moscow last night from the APEC summit in Shanghai, Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped in Dushanbe for talks on the issue with Rabbani and Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov. Putin supported Rabbani's view that the Taliban should not have any representation in the next Afghan government.

"We presume that the position of [Rabbani's] legitimate, internationally recognized government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan is well grounded -- that the Taliban movement should not be represented in the future government."

In Rome last night, EU security and foreign policy chief Javier Solana met with Afghanistan's 87-year-old former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. Solana said the purpose of that visit was to discuss Zahir Shah's views on a political solution for post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Solana said there will not be an easy solution. But he said the EU wants to talk with all "protagonists" in order to establish stability in the region after the Taliban is ousted from power. "We hope very much that the sooner the better, Afghanistan will be part of the family of nations -- something that, unfortunately, now is not the case because it has been taken over by a group of fanatics who run the country." Solana also said that Zahir Shah can play a role in Afghanistan's political reconciliation. But he did not specify what that role should be.

The former king has offered to head a transitional government for two years. He and Northern Alliance leaders agreed last month to cooperate by forming a council that would work toward creating a post-Taliban government.

Zalmai Rassoul, an aide to Zahir Shah, said last night that he expects the 120 council members to be named soon. He also indicated that he does not think moderate Taliban officials will be part of the council. "There is no moderate Taliban [official]. All the Afghan people who deserve to be in this council will be represented. The people represented in this council are based on the regions. Not based on the groups or parties or other sectors. They are representatives of the Afghan people." Zahir Shah is scheduled to meet later today with Lakhdar Brahimi, the senior United Nations envoy for Afghanistan.

As the diplomatic process continues, Northern Alliance forces are welcoming what they have described as fierce overnight attacks by U.S. warplanes at the Taliban-held northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Northern Alliance has mustered troops and threatened an assault on that Taliban stronghold. But the anti-Taliban forces remain a few kilometers from the strategic airport at Mazar-i-Sharif -- a site that could be used as a staging area for U.S.-led forces if it is seized from the Taliban.

Another sign of increased U.S. military pressure came on 19-20 October when U.S. paratroopers launched a series of commando raids near Kandahar, to the south of Kabul, and near Mazar-i-Sharif. The Pentagon has acknowledged that some U.S. ground troops may still be in Afghanistan on covert missions, but they are refusing to elaborate.

The Pentagon also is denying Taliban claims that a U.S. helicopter was shot down near Kandahar on the nightof 19 October during those raids. The Pentagon and Pakistan's Foreign Ministry say two U.S. soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed at an airbase within Pakistan.

Both CNN and the Arab satellite television channel Al-Jazeera today broadcast footage of wreckage near Kandahar that the Taliban says was a U.S. helicopter that had been shot down. The wreckage had markings indicating that it was from an aircraft built in the United States by Boeing.