KABUL, Afghanistan – In a major victory in the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban, opposition forces broke though Taliban defenses around Mazar-e-Sharif Friday and took the key northern city.
Reuters reports the Taliban Defense Minister confirmed the loss of the city. Earlier, a Taliban spokesman at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, confirmed the opposition forces had entered Mazar-e-Sharif.
The opposition's control of the city – which in the late 1990s changed hands several times and was the site of violent massacres – opens a land bridge to neighboring Uzbekistan and potentially allows a flood of weapons and supplies to the opposition alliance. The city will give anti-terrorism forces their first stronghold within Afghanistan for the campaign against the Taliban.
Scores of planes were deployed from the USS Theodore Roosevelt late Friday to attack Taliban troops retreating from Mazar-e-Sharif, according to the commander of the aircraft carrier.
"We thought this would be a very slow advance on the city, (but) it appears the Taliban have fallen back and over the course of the day, we've seen numerous convoys coming out of that area," Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald said earlier Friday.
"Our airplanes that are out there provided air support and battlefield air interdiction against those forces," he said.
Northern Alliance forces broke through Taliban defenses at the Pul-e-Imam Bukhri bridge on the southern edge of the city, Nadeem said. He said the opposition also overran the civilian airport and entered the city.
He said Taliban troops appeared to be moving east toward Samangan province. The capture of Mazar-e-Sharif is expected to open up vital supply lines to the opposition from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Three factions of the Northern Alliance were moving on the city, where the population is largely made up of ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, the same minorities as many in the opposition coalition.
Prior to the Taliban's confirmation, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said at the Pentagon that the reported breakthrough would be a welcome development if true.
Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who controlled Mazar-e-Sharif until the Taliban captured the city three years ago, said in Turkey that the alliance overran the city in a half hour.
He said he was speaking by satellite telephone from a hill overlooking Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum claimed northern alliance forces killed 500 Taliban fighters and took hundreds of others prisoner during the past four days of fighting.
Dostum claimed the alliance suffered 28 killed and more than 30 wounded.
In the past few days, opposition forces have credited intense American bombing against Taliban front lines with helping their advance on Mazar-e-Sharif. U.S. warplanes struck Taliban positions around the city Friday as well as on the other main front, north of Kabul.
Several explosions resounded on the outskirts of Kabul, and huge plumes of smoke rose along the front line about 30 miles north of the city. Taliban soldiers fought back with anti-aircraft guns after several days of holding their fire.
Col. Zia Hauddin, an opposition commander, said the Taliban had reinforced the front line with about 2,000 troops, mostly Arab and Pakistani volunteers. The Taliban have also brought in ammunition, tanks and other vehicles, he said.
The U.S. bombing "should be accelerated," he said.
Earlier Friday, fighting was heavy between opposition and Taliban forces around Mazar-e-Sharif, with the two sides giving conflicting accounts. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press quoted an unidentified Taliban spokesman as saying that troops repulsed two opposition attacks on the city Friday.
Alliance officials said they are counting on wholesale defections among Taliban forces in and around Mazar-e-Sharif and an uprising by the city's residents to avoid bloody house-to-house fighting. Taliban commanders, however, have said the morale of their troops is high.
Elsewhere, U.S. jets and B-52 bombers repeatedly hit Taliban targets overnight and early Friday north of Kabul and around Kandahar, the southern city that is the Taliban headquarters.
Witnesses reported about 30 bombs near Bagram, the site of an air base north of Kabul that is controlled by anti-Taliban forces. The opposition has not been able to use the airfield because of the proximity of Taliban troops.
The Taliban fired anti-aircraft guns at U.S. planes and shelled opposition forces, witnesses said. Taliban fire had diminished recently, though it was not clear whether the militia was conserving ammunition or had lost guns to the bombing.
At least 22 civilians and four Taliban soldiers died in bombing across Afghanistan on Thursday, according to Bakhtar. It said seven were killed when a bomb struck near a shrine in a Kandahar district where villagers, often women hoping to give birth to a son, gather regularly to offer prayers.
The Pentagon has said Taliban claims that the bombing has killed and wounded many civilians are exaggerated and that U.S. jets are only going after Taliban military targets. However, it has acknowledged that some civilian casualties are inevitable.
In Britain on Thursday, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf said that bombing Afghanistan during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan could alienate Muslims worldwide, and that civilian casualties were fueling perceptions of an unjust war.
Ramadan begins in about a week, and Musharraf plans to raise the issue with President Bush in New York during the weekend. He returns to Pakistan on Monday.
Musharraf faces opposition at home from pro-Taliban groups who resent his decision to side with the United States in its military campaign in Afghanistan. Those groups staged nationwide protests Friday, and three demonstrators were killed in a clash with police in the central city of D.G. Khan.
Bush launched the air assault Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to surrender Usama bin Laden, alleged architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed 4,500 people in the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.