The U.S. has launched new air strikes on the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Several hundred U.S. troops also moved to the area, thus signaling a new phase in the seven-week-old war against the Taliban militia and suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Despite fierce Taliban resistance in the northern town of Kondoz and near Mazar-i-Sharif, Northern Alliance forces believe the days of the religious militia are numbered.
Prague, 26 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- American warplanes have launched an attack on the southern Afghan city of Kandahar while hundreds of U.S. troops were setting up a base at a nearby airport in anticipation of a final assault on the Taliban stronghold.
Heavily armed AC-130 war planes and jet fighters pounded the city during the night and in the early morning. The air strikes stopped by mid-morning, allowing residents to return to the streets.
Eyewitnesses said targets pummeled by U.S. planes included trucks mounted with guns and grenade launchers, as well as official buildings and an Islamic school believed to be used by the Taliban.
There were no immediate reports of casualties and damages.
U.S. marines, meanwhile, have occupied the Kandahar airport. The marines, numbering up to 1,000, were ferried in through the night by helicopters leaving from the "U.S.S. Peleliu" amphibious assault ship situated in the Arabian Sea.
The airport is located about 20 kilometers southeast of Kandahar. It had fallen into the hands of local tribal chiefs yesterday evening, opening the way for U.S. helicopters and cargo planes to land tanks, armored vehicles, heavy artillery, and military personnel.
In Washington, officials confirmed the presence of U.S. soldiers in the area, adding that they will be joined by additional troops later this week. They gave no further details.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition, Kenton Keith, speaking today in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, also confirmed the presence of U.S. troops:
"I can confirm that there is military activity around Kandahar involving ground forces from the coalition, numbering up to 1,000 U.S. marines. For obvious operational and security reasons, I am not in a position to disclose details."
The addition of the marines marks a new development in the seven weeks of the U.S.-led anti-Taliban military operation.
Until now, the U.S. had confined itself to air attacks on Taliban positions, with Northern Alliance forces operating on the ground with the help of small allied commandos and military advisers.
Kandahar is believed to be the hideout of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, although it remains unclear whether he is still there.
Taliban leaders, who have lost their grip on most of Afghanistan over the last three weeks, have vowed to fight to the death rather than abandon the city.
But how many fighters remain trapped in Kandahar is unclear.
Taliban defectors claim the city is defended by up to 12,000 regular militiamen and 5,000 foreign fighters -- Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, and others. Yet eyewitnesses said today that only small numbers of Taliban fighters remained in the city.
Adding to the militia's difficulties, Pashtun tribal leaders opposed to Taliban rule have succeeded in cutting off the main road leading to Kandahar at Takhta Pul Post, some 75 kilometers north of the border with Pakistan.
In comments reported by the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency, a Taliban spokesman (unidentified) confirmed the fall of Takhta Pul Post. Eyewitnesses say they saw many bodies lying on the road, suggesting the area was the scene of heavy fighting.
Talking to reporters at the Pakistani border crossing point of Shaman, one Afghan refugee who fled the area suggested that fighting around Takhta Pul Post continued even after anti-Taliban forces had reached the Kandahar airport:
"We are on our way. There was fighting near the [Kandahar] airport between the Taliban and opposition forces and then, further on, in Takhta Pul Post."
Taliban forces deployed near the town of Spin Buldak, some 50 kilometers south of Takhta Pul Post, were reportedly negotiating their surrender today, while villagers in nearby hamlets were turning against the militia.
In an interview with the U.S. CBS television network, Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah today predicted that Kandahar would fall soon. He said that in his view the fate of the city will be decided within days.
However, speaking later to journalists in Kabul, Abdullah warned that the ongoing U.S. operation around Kandahar would not necessarily signal the end of the Taliban armed resistance:
"I would not say that this would mean the final act. I would not say so, but, as a whole, this is something which will have significance."
The U.S. decision to move troops to the area was prompted by the fall of the capital Kabul earlier this month and by favorable military conditions in Afghanistan's northernmost provinces.
Northern Alliance forces said they entered the northern city of Kondoz during the night after days of fierce fighting and difficult negotiations with Taliban militiamen who were defending the city.
Despite earlier claims that Kondoz was under the control of ethnic Tajik commander Mohammad Daud and that all Taliban fighters who had not been killed or taken prisoner had fled, Northern Alliance officials admitted today that they were still facing obstacles.
Speaking to reporters in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, the military attache of the Tajik embassy, Abdul Valud, said hard-core Taliban fighters from Kandahar and foreign mercenaries had set up pockets of resistance.
A Northern Alliance commander, Salim Mohammad, told Agence France Presse that today's fighting in Kondoz had left 100 dead on each side.
Heavy clashes were also reported today outside the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, in a citadel that was the scene of a recent prison insurrection.
Despite the Northern Alliance's assurances that the uprising had been quelled, explosions and gunfire could be heard in the Qala-i-Janghi fortress. Dozens of armed mutineers were still resisting by mid-afternoon today, battling with machine guns and rockets.
Hundreds of prisoners -- most of them foreign mercenaries -- staged a bloody last stand yesterday, seizing weapons from their captors and spreading panic among Northern Alliance fighters. The prisoners, who had surrendered earlier from Kondoz, are believed to have numbered around 800 when the revolt broke out.
U.S. warplanes pounded the uprising during the night, killing dozens of mutineers, before ethnic Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum moved into the area with his troops.
A Northern Alliance military official (Shujan Uddin) told AFP that up to 400 foreign Taliban fighters were killed in the uprising. Reports that a U.S. special forces officer was also killed have not been confirmed.
Whatever the difficulties met by Northern Alliance troops in the north, analysts believe a U.S. assault on Kandahar now would bring the Taliban to its knees.
Pakistan yesterday ordered border security tightened further in anticipation of an influx of religious militiamen fleeing the combat zone around Kandahar. Pakistani border guards were also issued photographs of Osama bin Laden -- the main suspect in the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington -- and his main Al-Qaeda lieutenants.
Bin Laden's whereabouts are unknown. Some reports say he is in the vicinity of the Khyber Pass that links eastern Afghanistan to Pakistan. Others put him outside Afghanistan. But U.S. officials believe the Saudi-born Islamic militant is hiding around Kandahar.