After abandoning a key northern city, Taliban forces retreated south Saturday toward the capital, Kabul, where the opposition threatened to launch a major attack within days. Opposition forces claimed to have seized three provincial capitals in what may signal the collapse of Islamic militia's rule in the north.
American B-52 bombers and other warplanes were in action Saturday over the front north of Kabul, and huge clouds of smoke billowed skyward as bombs exploded over Taliban positions.
The fast-moving events marked a major shift in the fortunes of the fractious northern-based opposition, which relied on American airpower to seize Mazar-e-Sharif and give the U.S.-led coalition its first major victory since the start of the bombing campaign Oct. 7.
If the three provincial capitals have fallen _ the opposition claims could not be independently verified _ the Taliban may have decided to abandon large swaths of territory populated by ethnic minorities in the north and redeploy their forces southward to defend Kabul and other strongholds of the dominant Pashtun ethnic group.
Anti-Taliban troops who were massed at the front about 30 miles north of Kabul cheered at reports of Mazar-e-Sharif's fall, with villagers crowding around radios to head the news.
"This is the beginning of the collapse of the Taliban," said Nur Agha, a 22-year-old fighter.
Alim Khan, a northern alliance commander there, said anti-Taliban forces would launch a major attack on the capital within three days. He said that 1,000 opposition troops would assemble today at Bagram, site of an opposition-controlled air base near the front line.
Mohammad Afzal Amon, the commander of the opposition's elite Zarbati troops north of Kabul, said 600 fighters had been sent to his area since the victory in Mazar-e-Sharif.
But the opposition would likely face a tougher battle for Kabul, a city of about 1-million, than it did at Mazar-e-Sharif. Taliban forces are more numerous and the terrain more mountainous.
And the United States has hinted that the Northern Alliance, which is made up primarily of northerners with Tajik and Uzbek roots, would be a poor choice to take power in Afghanistan, where 40 percent of the population is Pashtun.
President Bush on Saturday said Northern Alliance forces should not attempt to take the capital until a political settlement is worked out to share power among Afghanistan's various tribes.
"We will encourage our friends to head south but not into the city of Kabul itself," Bush said in New York during a news conference with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
Long distrustful of the warlords who make up the Northern Alliance, Musharraf agreed that the rebels should not advance into Kabul. If they do, he said, "we'll see the same atrocities committed" as after the withdrawal of Soviet troops more than a decade ago.
In Kabul, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia confirmed losing Mazar-e-Sharif and said their forces withdrew rather than risk the destruction of the city of about 200,000.
"We did not want to risk our soldiers or have the city destroyed, so we left," Abdul Hanan Hemat, chief of the Taliban-controlled Bakhtar News Agency said. "But our morale is high."
He said the opposition would have been unable to take the city had it not been for a week of relentless bombing by U.S. jets.
The capture of Mazar-e-Sharif was the biggest success since President Bush launched airstrikes to force the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
It was not clear how many Taliban fighters were pulling back toward Kabul from Mazar-e-Sharif. American bombers were pursuing any Taliban troops they could find in the open, whether they were retreating, advancing or standing still, the Pentagon said Saturday.
Most of the Taliban fighters were believed to be moving along the main road between Mazar-e-Sharif and the capital _ about 250 miles long. An opposition commander, Mohammed Mohaqik, said Saturday that anti-Taliban forces had seized Aybak, a provincial capital located on that road about 75 miles southeast of Mazar-e-Sharif. The claim could not be immediately confirmed, but if true it could block an escape route for some of the Taliban troops.
Aybak was one of three provincial capitals Mohaqik said opposition forces seized a day after Mazar-e-Sharif's fall. The other two were Shibarghan, in Jozjan province, and Maimana, in Faryab province _ both west of Mazar-e-Sharif, a key northern city that straddles major roads to neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The forces heading west were going to hook up with another opposition warlord near the city of Herat, said Mohammad Yunis Qanooni, the interior minister for the coalition of anti-Taliban warlords and politicians who make up the Northern Alliance.
"The Taliban has one strong defensive line and there is nothing else behind it," Qanooni said. "So when we break through we are able to capture huge areas."
Opposition forces seized Taliban mountaintop positions overlooking the northern city of Taloqan, the headquarters of the northern alliance until it fell to Taliban troops in September 2000, said an alliance spokesman, Mohammed Abil. Anti-Taliban troops also took control of Hairatan on the border with Uzbekistan, Abil said,
There was no comment from the Taliban on the opposition claims, which could not be verified because no foreign reporters or international observers were in the area.
With Mazar-e-Sharif in opposition hands, the U.S.-led coalition can open a land bridge to Uzbekistan, 45 miles to the north, to rush in humanitarian goods and military supplies to anti-Taliban forces. The city's large airport could also be refurbished for American and allied aircraft to conduct humanitarian missions and mount attacks against the Taliban from within Afghanistan.
Residents of the city _ most of whom are ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks like the opposition forces _ celebrated the victory by sacrificing sheep and giving thanks in the blue-tiled mosque that gives Mazar-e-Sharif its name, opposition commanders said.
Outside Mazar-e-Sharif, the opposition commander Mohaqik said his forces overran a school 6 miles to the west, where hundreds of pro-Taliban Arab and Pakistani volunteers fleeing the city had taken refuge. He said some 1,000 of the pro-Taliban fighters were killed and 50 others captured.
Hemat, chief of the Taliban's news agency, denied the report and said the bulk of Taliban forces had withdrawn to Samangan province east of Mazar-e-Sharif. Both sides have exaggerated casualty claims in the past.
In Khwaja Bahuaddin, the northern alliance's foreign minister, Abdullah, said the Taliban had left 20 tanks and many heavy weapons behind. At least 20 Taliban fighters were killed and hundreds were taken prisoner, he said.
_ Information from the Chicago Tribune was used in this report.