KABUL, Afghanistan -- After abandoning a key northern city, Taliban forces retreated south Saturday toward the capital, Kabul, where the opposition threatened to launch a major attack within days. Opposition forces claimed to have seized three provincial capitals in what may signal the collapse of Islamic militia's rule in the north.
American B-52 bombers and other warplanes were in action Saturday over the front north of Kabul, and huge clouds of smoke billowed skyward as bombs exploded over Taliban positions.
The fast-moving events marked a major shift in the fortunes of the fractious northern-based opposition, which relied on American airpower to seize Mazar-e-Sharif and give the U.S.-led coalition its first major victory since the start of the bombing campaign Oct. 7.
If the three provincial capitals have fallen -- the opposition claims could not be independently verified -- the Taliban may have decided to abandon large swaths of territory populated by ethnic minorities in the north and redeploy their forces southward to defend Kabul and other strongholds of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group.
Anti-Taliban troops who were massed at the front about 30 miles north of Kabul cheered at reports of Mazar-e-Sharif's fall, with villagers crowding around radios to head the news.
''This is the beginning of the collapse of the Taliban,'' said Nur Agha, a 22-year-old fighter.
Alim Khan, a northern alliance commander there, said anti-Taliban forces would launch a major attack on the capital within three days. He said that 1,000 opposition troops would assemble Sunday at Bagram, site of an opposition-controlled air base near the front line.
Mohammad Afzal Amon, the commander of the opposition's elite Zarbati troops north of Kabul, said 600 fighters had been sent to his area since the victory in Mazar-e-Sharif.
But the opposition would likely face a much tougher battle for Kabul, a city of about 1 million people, than they it did at Mazar-e-Sharif. Taliban forces are more numerous and the terrain more mountainous. And the United States -- whose warplanes would be vital to any advance -- has expressed reservations about the alliance taking the capital.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said Kabul should become neutral territory if anti-Taliban forces oust the ruling militia, saying the capital's residents -- many of them Pashtuns -- fear and mistrust the opposition.
In Kabul, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia confirmed losing Mazar-e-Sharif and said their forces withdrew rather than risk the destruction of the city of about 200,000.
''We did not want to risk our soldiers or have the city destroyed, so we left,'' Abdul Hanan Hemat, chief of the Taliban-controlled Bakhtar News Agency said. ''But our morale is high. Losing Mazar-e-Sharif has not damaged our spirit.''
He said the opposition would have been unable to take the city had it not been for a week of relentless bombing by U.S. jets.
The capture of Mazar-e-Sharif was the biggest success since President Bush launched airstrikes to force the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
In other developments:
Diplomats from the United States, Russia and six other nations working at the United Nations to find a political solution in Afghanistan welcomed a general amnesty that opposition forces offered to Taliban supporters in Mazar-e-Sharif when they took control of the city.
Bush told the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Saturday that all countries share an urgent obligation to battle terrorism. ''For every regime that sponsors terror, there is a price to be paid and it will be paid,'' Bush said. ''The time for action has now arrived.''
Bin Laden claims he has nuclear and chemical weapons and will unleash them if the United States uses similar weapons against him, according to an interview published Saturday in Dawn, one of Pakistan's largest newspapers.
Suspected terrorist Mohammed Atta contacted an Iraqi agent with plans to blow up the Radio Free Europe building in Prague several months before the terrorist attacks in the United States, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman told CNN. Czech officials say Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence agent working as a diplomat in Prague in April.
It was not clear how many Taliban fighters were pulling back toward Kabul from Mazar-e-Sharif. American bombers were pursuing any Taliban troops they could find in the open, whether they were retreating, advancing or standing still, the Pentagon said Saturday.
Most of the Taliban fighters were believed to be moving along the main road between Mazar-e-Sharif and the capital -- about 250 miles long. An opposition commander, Mohammed Mohaqik, said Saturday that anti-Taliban forces had seized Aybak, a provincial capital located on that road about 75 miles southeast of Mazar-e-Sharif. The claim could not be immediately confirmed, but if true it could block an escape route for some of the Taliban troops.
Aybak was one of three provincial capitals that Mohaqik said opposition forces seized a day after Mazar-e-Sharif's fall. The other two were Shibarghan, in Jozjan province, and Maimana, in Faryab province -- both to the west of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Opposition forces seized Taliban mountaintop positions overlooking the northern city of Taloqan, the headquarters of the northern alliance until it fell to Taliban troops in September 2000, said an alliance spokesman, Mohammed Abil.
Anti-Taliban troops also took control of Hairatan on the border with Uzbekistan, Abil said,
There was no comment from the Taliban on the opposition claims, which could not be verified because no foreign reporters or international observers were in the area.
With Mazar-e-Sharif in opposition hands, the U.S.-led coalition can open a land bridge to Uzbekistan, 45 miles to the north, to rush in humanitarian goods and military supplies to anti-Taliban forces. The city's large airport could also be refurbished for American and allied aircraft to conduct humanitarian missions and mount attacks against the Taliban from within Afghanistan.
Residents of the city -- most of whom are ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks like the opposition forces -- celebrated the victory by sacrificing sheep and giving thanks in the blue-tiled mosque which gives Mazar-e-Sharif its name, opposition commanders said.
Outside Mazar-e-Sharif, the opposition commander Mohaqik said his forces overran a school six miles to the west, where hundreds of pro-Taliban Arab and Pakistani volunteers fleeing the city had taken refuge. He said some 1,000 of the pro-Taliban fighters were killed and 50 others captured.
Hemat, chief of the Taliban's news agency, denied the report and said the bulk of Taliban forces had withdrawn to Samangan province east of Mazar-e-Sharif. Both sides have exaggerated casualty claims in the past.
In Khwaja Bahuaddin, the northern alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah, said the Taliban had left 20 tanks and many heavy weapons behind. At least 20 Taliban fighters were killed and hundreds were taken prisoner, he said.
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