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Afghan rebels take key city

Anti-Taliban forces entered the strategic northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday in what appeared to be their first major battlefield victory and a potential turning point in the war for Afghanistan after a month of escalating U.S. air attacks.

Commanders of the United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance, said their forces captured the crossroads city after a fierce battle. A popular uprising was reported to have occurred as panicked Taliban troops fled the city heading east.

"Mazar has fallen," said Mohammed Hassan Saad, the United Front's top official in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. "The Taliban left the city and are retreating toward Kunduz."

The claims from the alliance, which often exaggerates battlefield successes, could not be independently verified, and the Pentagon would not publicly confirm them.

However, U.S. officials confirmed that opposition fighters entered the city and said hundreds of Taliban soldiers had defected and others appeared to be on the run.

"People are firing their guns into the air in celebration," said Mahmad Azim, 32, a businessman reached by telephone in Mazar-e-Sharif. "The Taliban have run away."

The officials cautioned that the Taliban still has tanks and artillery and could counterattack. Some U.S. officials argued that American forces should be sent from Uzbekistan to secure the city, but a decision has been put off until the situation is clearer.

The loss of Mazar-e-Sharif would be a major military and psychological blow to the Taliban, whom President Bush accuses of harboring terrorist Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It would allow U.S. military forces to establish a land bridge to ferry in ammunition, fuel, food and other supplies to the alliance from neighboring Uzbekistan, where U.S. troops are based. That route also could be used to speed the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The alliance's advances came after the United States intensified its bombing in recent days of Taliban positions near Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul and elsewhere. Those strikes reportedly have become more accurate because of closer collaboration between the alliance and U.S. special forces teams directing U.S. aircraft to their targets.

There were reports Friday that alliance forces were massing along the front line on the Shomali Plain 25 miles north of Kabul, where they face an entrenched Taliban force.

The reported advances against the Taliban after 34 days of U.S. air strikes also provide a much-needed boost to President Bush, who is due to speak at the United Nations this morning.

Bush administration officials have encouraged the United Front, an alliance led by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, to advance on Mazar-e-Sharif for weeks.

"It was a very fierce battle," said Haji Muhammed Mukhaqiq, one of the three United Front generals who led the attack, speaking by satellite telephone from Mazar-e-Sharif.

A number of Taliban tanks were destroyed by the bombing. Others lay abandoned along the path of the Front's advance. Taliban dead lay on the ground.

"We haven't counted them up yet," Mukhaqiq said. "But every time we advanced to a new position, there were five or six dead bodies there. They were, almost without exception, Arab or Pakistani. Almost all of the fighters on the front line were foreigners."

In Washington, Pentagon officials reacted cautiously in public, saying they could not confirm Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen and they were trying to sort out reports from the field.

"There are skirmishes happening across these various fronts, if you want to call them as such, and with that dust in the air, it's very hard to tell exactly what's going on," Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.

Stufflebeem, calling information coming in from Mazar-e-Sharif limited and "very confusing," said he expected that U.S. special forces teams on the ground would soon be able to confirm whether the city was secure.

But, he added, "we do not have advisers with every element of the opposition forces."

Military planners in Washington had been debating about whether to press to get the Afghanistan border open so that U.S. forces could advance down a highway from Uzbekistan and take possession of the air base at Mazar-e-Sharif.

The apparent capture of Mazar-e-Sharif bolstered the hopes of other rebel soldiers fighting in other parts of Afghanistan.

"If Mazar-e-Sharif has fallen, it will be fruitful because the alliance can send us military equipment and food," said Gulom Shah, a soldier fighting under Rulan Hassrat, a commander with allegiances to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another prominent Afghan warlord once backed by the CIA and now allied with Iran.

The reported capture of the city marked the third time since 1997 that it has changed hands.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday that Afghanistan's capital of Kabul should become an "open city" under no one warring faction's control if the Taliban loses control over it.

As a precedent, he cited Berlin after Germany's defeat in World War II before the capital was divided into U.S., Russian, British and French zones.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said that the capture of Mazar-e-Sharif would allow the United States to use the upcoming Ramadan period to bring in relief supplies by land from Uzbekistan. Ramadan, which starts when the light of the crescent moon is visible, likely Nov. 17, is the Muslim month of daytime fasting and religious contemplation.

_ Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.