Taliban, foes battling over northern city; round-the-clock attacks pummel Kabul targets

Wednesday, October 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Aided by U.S. bombing, opposition forces closed in Wednesday on a key northern city. U.S. jets struck fuel dumps in Kabul, setting off a huge fire, and the Taliban claimed U.S. planes hit two trucks, killing seven civilians trying to flee the onslaught.

The U.S.-led air campaign, now in its 11th day, showed no sign of abating. A Western diplomatic source said in Islamabad, Pakistan, that the Taliban foreign minister had asked the Americans to slow down the air campaign to allow moderates to reconsider their refusal to hand over terror suspect Osama bin Laden.

International aid organizations appealed Wednesday for a pause in the bombing to allow them to rush food to Afghan civilians as the harsh winter approaches. ``Time's almost run out,'' said Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam International.

President Bush ordered airstrikes Oct. 7 after the Taliban repeatedly refused to turn over bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

In the north, opposition forces claimed their troops were closing in on the airport at the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and some units were as close as 4 miles.

Taliban Information Ministry official Abdul Henan Himet confirmed heavy fighting near Mazar-e-Sharif but insisted Taliban forces were ``fully capable'' of defending the strategic city.

In the latest airstrikes, U.S. jets struck an oil depot at a Taliban army garrison Wednesday in the Afghan capital of Kabul, setting off a huge fire. Airstrikes on Kabul were continuing through the afternoon, mostly in the north of the city.

Residents could see fire near the front line between Taliban and opposition forces. That suggested the Americans were going after Taliban troop concentrations there.

Elsewhere, a Taliban official, Amir Khan Muttaqi, claimed U.S. jets struck two truck Tuesday afternoon near the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, killing seven civilians. The report could not be independently confirmed.

The Taliban claimed 47 civilians had been killed in bombing in Kandahar over the past two days. The report could not be independently confirmed.

In Washington, U.S. officials said the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif could fall within days, thanks in part to U.S. and British bombing that cleared the way for the opposition.

It would be a ``significant setback,'' Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff operations director, told reporters.

Control of Mazar-e-Sharif would give the opposition power over supply routes and consolidate their position near the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, a source of weapons and support for the rebels.

With the air campaign accelerating, there were signs that elements within the Taliban were seeking a way out of the confrontation with the United States.

In Islamabad, a Western diplomatic source speaking on condition of anonymity said Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil traveled secretly to Pakistan to ask that the United States slow down the airstrikes.

Muttawakil asked Pakistan to convey the message that if Washington slowed the campaign, moderates in the Taliban leadership would reassess their stand on bin Laden.

Bush has repeatedly refused to negotiate, insisting the Taliban surrender bin Laden unconditionally.

In an attempt to rally his forces, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar reportedly sent a radio message of encouragement to his commanders Wednesday, telling them God was on their side.

``Show patience and confidence, because we are waging a holy war against infidels,'' Omar said, according to the Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based news agency. ``Life and death are both the same to us, because we want to become martyrs.''

In Islamabad, international aid groups appealed for a chance to transport food to Afghans ahead the winter snow, expected to start next month. Aid groups also appealed to both sides to avoid targeting aid convoys.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon acknowledged bombing the International Red Cross compound in Kabul, setting two warehouses on fire. A Pentagon official said U.S. pilots thought the warehouses were used by the Taliban.