WASHINGTON (AP) The Bush administration cheered signs that the Taliban were deserting the Afghan capital as defense officials said yesterday they planned to base U.S. aircraft in the bordering country of Tajikistan.

Taliban fighters could be seen streaming out of Kabul after dawn today. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said large numbers of Taliban were leaving, but the ruling militia”s evacuation from Kabul was “far from complete.”

“I think it is great news. It means the initial phase of the campaign is going well,” Army Secretary Thomas White said.

Northern alliance forces began moving into the capital in pickup trucks loaded with soldiers armed with rifles and rocket launchers. There was no shooting as the opposition forces took over a military barracks that only hours before had been in Taliban hands.

White said on CNN”s “Larry King Live” that he thought “a combination of well-targeted air power along with movement on the ground by northern alliance forces” prompted the Taliban to flee Kabul.

A senior administration official said pleasure among White House officials with “the major Taliban defeat” was tempered by concern that large numbers of northern alliance troops would stream into Kabul and destabilize the city and its delicate balance of competing tribes.

The official said it would take several hours and the help of coalition forces personally reviewing the situation on the ground to determine the impact of the Taliban retreat.

The decision on the Tajik base follows an onsite assessment by U.S. military advisers of the feasibility of using as many as three airfields in the former Soviet republic. The Tajik government had offered the bases for U.S. use against Afghanistan, and the decision to go ahead could mean more Air Force fighter-bombers will be sent there soon.

The U.S. defense official, who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity, said it was not yet clear how much local improvement would be needed before the airfield could be put to use. The official was not certain which airfield was chosen out of three offered: Kulyab, Khojand and Kurgan-Tyube.

The U.S. military already is using one airfield in Uzbekistan, where at least 1,000 soldiers of the U.S. Army”s 10th Mountain Division are based. It also has made use of military facilities in Pakistan, although nearly all combat missions have been flown from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea and from a British base in the Indian Ocean. Some missions have been flown from Persian Gulf nations.

The significance of using one or more airfields in Tajikistan is twofold: It offers a chance to fly shorter attack missions in support of anti-Taliban forces, possibly offering some relief to Navy pilots who have been flying long missions from carriers, and, secondly, it offers an opportunity to expand the delivery of humanitarian relief to Afghans.

Victoria Clarke, chief spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, said yesterday that the U.S. government is focusing hard on an expanded humanitarian relief effort, now that Taliban forces have lost control of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and are on the run elsewhere in the country.

“There”s an intensive effort under way,” she said.

Thus far, the delivery of food rations and other humanitarian relief has been limited to airdrops by Air Force C-17 cargo planes flying from Germany. More than 1.3 million food packets have been delivered, but the Pentagon has been eager to find more efficient means namely overland deliveries.

U.S. officials also said they had received reports that communications between the al-Qaida forces of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban had been further hampered by recent U.S. bombing _ adding to the difficulty of mounting a defense against the opposition forces.

Rumsfeld said on Sunday there was friction between leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban, although he did not elaborate. A U.S. official on Monday said there were significant disagreements between the two groups over military tactics.

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