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Northern Alliance Claims Key Gains in Battle for Major City

By Maura Reynolds and John Hendren

termez, uzbekistan

Anti-Taliban forces reported Thursday they have strengthened their positions in what a key U.S. commander called a “big fight” under way near the strategically located city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

Leaders of the opposition Northern Alliance described the firefights in neighboring villages as a prelude to an imminent assault on the city that could last two or three days. The opposition leaders said they are eager to take Mazar-e-Sharif before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in about a week, securing a crucial corridor for deliveries of U.S. military supplies and humanitarian aid.

“We hope that by (today), we’ll already be on the city outskirts, Allah willing,” said Kuodratullo, a top aide to Northern Alliance commander Ata Mohammed. Kuodratullo, who goes by a single name, was interviewed by satellite telephone from the town of Shulgara, about 25 miles south of the city.

Haji Muhammad Mukhaqiq, one of the three main Northern Alliance commanders around Mazar-e-Sharif, confirmed that an offensive on the city itself is in the works but declined to say when it would start.

“We strengthened our positions (Thursday) and are in line of sight of the city,” Mukhaqiq said by satellite phone from Shulgara. “We spent all day in meetings and (strategy) discussions.”

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander coordinating the military campaign in Afghanistan, confirmed from Washington, “There is a big fight that’s going on in the vicinity of Mazar.”

Franks said that Northern Alliance control of the city would be key “because it would provide a land bridge ... up to Uzbekistan, which provides us, among other things, a humanitarian pathway for us to move supplies out of Central Asia and down into Afghanistan.”

Capturing Mazar-e-Sharif, located on a north-south transportation corridor, also would give Northern Alliance troops a base of operations where they could be more easily supplied by the United States. An opposition victory would also provide an important morale boost.