BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Backed by heavy U.S. bombing, Afghan opposition forces claimed the capture Tuesday of several key towns on the road to Mazar-e-Sharif in their first reported significant advance against Taliban defenses.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said an assessment of the claimed move against the strategic northern city would have to wait until the ''dust settled'' and there was a pause in the fighting.
Even if true, it would mean opposition forces were several dozen miles away across mountainous terrain from Mazar-e-Sharif, with winter closing in.
But after seesawing battles south of Mazar-e-Sharif in recent weeks, the opposition said intense strikes by American planes helped open the way for Tuesday's advance. The alliance had complained earlier that U.S. bombing was not heavy enough.
U.S. jets also hit Taliban positions on another main front of the war, north of the capital, Kabul, dropping more than a dozen bombs and raising black smoke over the valley.
Rumsfeld said U.S. military planners hope that American help to the opposition alliance -- including weapons and ammunition -- will unite its factions so ''that we will see more success'' on the ground.
President Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the ruling Taliban militia refused to hand over Osama bin Laden for his alleged role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In other developments:
-- Bush pledged ''to keep relentless military pressure'' on bin Laden and the Taliban, saying it is essential to keep terrorists from acquiring nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
-- Germany said it would commit 3,900 troops for the U.S. war on terrorism, opening the way for the nation's widest-ranging military engagement since World War II. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said there are no immediate plans to deploy ground troops.
-- Rumsfeld said the United States extracted Hamid Karzai, a southern opposition leader, from Afghanistan over the weekend. Taliban forces had been chasing Karzai as he tried to rally support among ethnic Pashtun tribes for an alternative to the Taliban.
-- The Bush administration said it will help Pakistan stop smugglers from trucking weapons across its porous border with Afghanistan, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan said.
The northern alliance, which launched a three-pronged attack Sunday toward Mazar-e-Sharif, seized Ogopruk and two other towns in a pre-dawn assault, said Ashraf Nadeem, an opposition spokesman. The area is 45 miles south of Mazar-e-Sharif.
''We attacked while the Americans were bombing,'' Nadeem said in a satellite telephone interview. ''It was not only us who killed. It was mostly the Americans.''
In recent weeks both sides have taken and lost villages around Mazar-e-Sharif. Retaking the city, which the Taliban captured from the opposition in 1998, would likely lead to the collapse of the Islamic militia's power in the northern region.
Nadeem claimed 300 Taliban defenders died and 300 defected to the opposition during Tuesday's fighting. Five opposition fighters were killed and nine wounded, he said. His account could not be independently verified, and there was no comment from the Taliban on the claims.
The towns' capture allowed opposition forces to push Tuesday toward Shol Ghar, and heavy fighting was reported about 30 miles southeast of Mazar-e-Sharif, Nadeem said.
Rumsfeld declined to confirm the claims of an opposition advance.
''There are so many reports about this village or that village,'' he said. ''I like to let the dust settle and see where it is at the end of some period of time after there has been a pause.''
The United States wants the Afghan opposition, a loose coalition of fighters dominated by ethnic minority Tajiks and Uzbeks, to make significant gains ahead of winter. Fighting traditionally tapers off then because snow closes roads and hampers the resupply of troops.
At the front line north of Kabul, U.S. jets targeted Taliban-held territory Tuesday near the Bagram air base and later the villages of Khan Agha and Barikab, and black smoke blanketed the area.
On the ground nearby, shots rang out on each side of the front. Opposition fighters say Taliban fire has lessened in recent days, but some say the lull is a sign the Taliban is saving ammunition to repel a large opposition advance.
Beyond a row of abandoned buildings, Taliban soldiers in baggy shirts and pants could be seen pacing, Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders.
Zaubet, a 19-year-old opposition fighter, said he had seen the Taliban bringing in men and supplies in pickup trucks in the past few days.
In Kabul on Tuesday, Taliban gunners opened fire at what appeared to be a small U.S. spy plane that cruised over the city at mid-afternoon.
Later, puffs of black smoke could be seen in the southern outskirts of the city. Taliban gunners fired repeated bursts of anti-aircraft rounds, but it was unclear whether they hit anything.
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