The Washington Post

JABAL-US-SARAJ, Afghanistan The opposition Northern Alliance said yesterday that it gained ground in its battle to capture the key northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and a senior alliance official said rebel leaders decided to await the outcome of the battle before launching an offensive on the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Alliance forces plan to launch a new round of attacks in the next few days in an effort to capture Mazar-e-Sharif, a victory that could open a supply pipeline to the alliance”s positions north of Kabul, officials said.

“It is our goal that we first capture Mazar-e-Sharif,” said Yonus Qanooni, who serves as the Northern Alliance interior minister. “Then we should move toward Kabul.”

Qanooni said the alliance would stick with that plan barring a complete collapse of the Taliban on the front about 40 miles north of the capital. In that case, he said, “then it”s our obligation to move toward Kabul.”

By late yesterday afternoon, Northern Alliance forces held most of the key towns and villages south of Mazar-e-Sharif, had seized the hydroelectric dam that powers the city and had recaptured a military camp that was once a headquarters of Northern Alliance Gen. Rashid Dostum, according to interviews with field commanders in Afghanistan and alliance officials in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

“Mazar-e-Sharif will fall soon. The way is open now,” said Mohammed Hasham Saad, the top representative of the Northern Alliance in Tashkent. “I think it won”t take a week.”

Alliance officials previously had indicated they were prepared to march on the capital before the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif, a victory that appeared imminent weeks ago but has since receded from the alliance”s reach. With intensive U.S. bombing in recent days, however, and a U.S. re-supply operation by helicopter, alliance forces south of the city have made gains in a week-long offensive, officials said.

In an apparent indication that the U.S. bombing has been taking a heavy toll, Harakat-e-Jihad-e-Islami (Islamic Jihad Movement), a Pakistan-based militant group allied with terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden, said yesterday that recent U.S. air strikes had killed 85 of its fighters, who had been sent to the area south of Mazar-e-Sharif as reinforcements for the Taliban.

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