Anti-Taliban forces took the strategically important city of Mazar-e Sharif yesterday, but bad weather forced them to postpone another offensive in Takhar province in northern Afghanistan.
Ashraf Nadim, aide-de-camp of Commander Muhammad Atta, said that by 5 p.m., 2,500 United Islamic Front forces had taken the Mazar-e Sharif power station and airport, and moved to the centre of the city.
Mazar-e Sharif was considered the linchpin in the Taliban's grip on northern Afghanistan. For the United States and the UIF, also known as the Northern Alliance, Mazar-e Sharif offers two key prizes: a working airport and a road link to Uzbekistan, about 65 kilometres to the north.
About 7,500 Hazara and Uzbek troops of General Abdul Rashid Dostum attacked Mazar-e Sharif from the south. They entered the suburb of Kudebarg and captured the military base at Ferkededadi.
Afghan foreign ministry officials in Khwaja Bahuddin said they were monitoring Taliban radio traffic and confirmed that the Taliban forces were withdrawing from the city.
According to General Mamur Hassan, a large number of Taliban soldiers drowned while trying to escape by crossing a river in Kudebarg.
U.S. military sources reported that the Mazar-e Sharif hospital is tending to hundreds of Taliban casualties.
They also said hundreds of Taliban soldiers have defected.
With control of Mazar-e Sharif, the United States and its allies expect to be capable of rushing in large quantities of ammunition, tanks, artillery and other supplies to bolster the ill-equipped opposition forces.
Uzbekistan supports the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and has allowed about 1,000 U.S. soldiers to be stationed on its soil.
Mazar-e Sharif has an estimated population of about 200,000, mostly Tajiks and Uzbeks. Most Taliban fighters are ethnic Pashtuns, a minority in the north.
Dostum, an Uzbek, ruled Mazar-e Sharif until it fell to the Taliban in 1998.
Hassan said his forces were ready to attack Taliban positions on the Kala Kata Hill, near the Tajik border in northern Afghanistan, but had to postpone the ground offensive because the weather didn't allow for the U.S. bombing.
"If Americans bomb, we will attack," Hassan said. "If they can't bomb because of the bad weather, we will wait."
He said that his forces were planning to attack Taliban positions at Kala Kata, break the Taliban lines and launch a three-prong attack to capture the cities of Dasht-e Archi, Kunduz and move to surround Taloqan.
The capture of Taloqan would be the second biggest prize after Mazar-e Sharif for the anti-Taliban United Islamic Front. It would give them access to the strategic Khawaq Pass - a much shorter supply road to the Panjshir Valley and ultimately to Kabul.
Control of Taloqan, the former capital for the opposition forces, would also increase dramatically the pool of human resources available to them.
The rebel forces facing Taliban positions at Kala Kata were getting ready for the big push yesterday.
Trucks were unloading ammunition and soldiers were busy digging tank positions at the top of the Puze Pulekhomry hill.
There was some sporadic shooting, but Taliban soldiers didn't fire back. Instead, they were taunting opposition soldiers over the walkie-talkies.
"That's it, you must have fired your last shell," a Taliban soldier told Shah Murad, a 29-year-old machine gunner who had just fired six shots in the direction of the Taliban positions in the valley bellow.
"Get your stinking head out of the trenches and you'll see if this was the last shell," Murad responded.
Inoyatullah, a 26-year-old soldier, said they speak with their Taliban counterparts several times a day.
"It gets boring here, there is nothing to do," Inoyatullah said. "So we talk on the walkie-talkies. They tell us to come to their side and we tell them to come to our side.
"If they are nice to us, we speak nicely to them. We don't like to swear and curse, we are Muslims."
Inoyatullah said that often after shooting at each other, they ask about each other's health and family.
"But that doesn't prevent us from fighting," Inoyatullah said.
ALFRED ELICIERTO, GAZETTE GRAPHICS / The fall of Mazar-e Sharif:
Assisted by heavy U.S. bombing of the Taliban front line, the Nothern Alliance finally captured the city that could be a key land bridge for the U.S.-led coalition.
About 2,500 soldiers capture the airport and power station
Ground offensive postponed because of bad weather
The U.S. has been bombing near the Tajik border to make way for a Northern Alliance advance westward to Mazar-e Sharif
About 7,500 Northern Alliance troops attack from the south and cross the Pul-I-Imam Bukhiri bridge against fierce Taliban resistance
The city at a glance
Sources: AP; The Guardian
© 2009 Levon Sevunts. All rights reserved.