JABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan (AP) Opposition forces claimed to have the Taliban on the run across much of northern Afghanistan yesterday, as the ruling Islamic militia abandoned stronghold after stronghold in a withdrawal south toward the capital, Kabul.

Paul Wong
A northern alliance fighter covers his ears near a firing mortar near the Quruq village in northern Afghanistan yesterday.<br><br>AP PHOTO

The foreign minister of the northern alliance, Abdullah, claimed the opposition had seized half the country in the past two days and dealt the Taliban a severe blow as a fighting force. U.S. officials warned that a counterattack was possible.

As Taliban fighters fled south, President Bush urged the opposition not to take Kabul before a new, broad-based government could be formed.

However, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged yesterday that “we don”t have enough forces on the ground to stand in their way” if the northern alliance tried to seize the capital.

At a press conference here, Abdullah said the opposition had recaptured its former headquarters, Taloqan, and three other northern provincial capitals since Mazar-e-Sharif, linchpin of the Taliban defenses in the north, fell to the alliance on Friday.

In Washington, however, Rumsfeld said that while the opposition had “effective control” of Mazar-e-Sharif, “there are pockets of resistance within the city.”

“There could always be a counterattack,” he said. The city”s airport had not yet been secured, he added, though he thought it would be soon.

Taliban officials acknowledged their forces were in a “strategic withdrawal,” apparently toward Kabul and the ethnic Pashtun strongholds to the south. The alliance is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, while Pashtuns _ the nation”s largest ethnic group _ form the core of Taliban support.

Abdul Hanan Hemat, chief of the Taliban”s Bakhtar news agency, denied claims that Taloqan had fallen.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Foreign journalists do not have access to many of the front lines and have been speaking to opposition commanders by satellite phone.

The opposition”s Abdullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said some 200 Taliban fighters were killed in fighting for Taloqan and other towns. Both sides have exaggerated claims in the past.

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