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Taliban Takeovers Inhibit UN Aid, Afghan Militia Mobilizes Thousands

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

With a U.S. military strike against Afghanistan appearing increasingly likely, the country’s ruling Taliban militia said Monday that it had mobilized thousands of fighters to guard its borders. At the same time, U.N. officials said the Taliban had taken over several aid agency offices, severely impeding most humanitarian relief operations in the country.

Here in Islamabad, a Foreign Ministry official said Monday that Pakistan, which has pledged to support the United States in its efforts to capture alleged terrorist Osama bin Liden, has pulled all of its diplomats out of Afghanistan. Pakistan had been one of only three nations to formally recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government; Sunday, the United Arab Emirates severed ties with the Taliban, and Saudi Arabia reportedly is considering a similar move.

In another blow to the Taliban, which has harbored bin Laden for five years, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his government will increase its assistance to Afghan opposition forces, and he gave tacit approval for former Soviet republics in Central Asia to give the United States access to airfields and military bases for a potential strike on Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a statement attributed to bin Laden, the prime suspect in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, urged Muslims in Pakistan to fight a holy war against “America’s crusader forces” that are preparing to strike his bases in Afghanistan, according to an Arab television broadcast.

Taliban officials said they were dispatching 300,000 fighters to defend Afghanistan’s borders, a figure Western officials and analysts called a gross exaggeration. The Taliban is estimated to have about 45,000 fighters, 20,000 of whom are fighting the opposition Northern Alliance, with the rest probably taking up defensive positions against a possible U.S. strike, analysts said.