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Rebels claim more gains

Opposition forces claimed to have the Taliban on the run across much of northern Afghanistan on Sunday, as the ruling Islamic militia abandoned stronghold after stronghold in a withdrawal south toward the capital, Kabul.

The foreign minister of the Northern Alliance, Abdullah, said the opposition had seized half the country in the past two days and dealt the Taliban a severe blow.

"They have not only lost large areas, but they have lost the main part of their fighting force," Abdullah said in a news conference.

Abdullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said the opposition had recaptured its former headquarters, Taloqan, and three other northern provincial capitals since Mazar-e-Sharif, linchpin of the Taliban defenses in the north, fell to the alliance on Friday.

Northern Alliance military leaders claimed their soldiers had entered Taloqan without firing a shot after making a deal with the local Taliban warlord to switch sides, the New York Times reported. The warlord, identified as Abdullah Gard, and Northern Alliance leaders closed the deal just before sunset Sunday, and the alliance soldiers then marched into the city, the opposition leaders said.

The apparent surrender of Taloqan sets the stage for new moves from two directions against the nearby city of Kunduz, about 35 miles to the west. Thousands of Taliban soldiers who fled Mazar-e-Sharif appear to be heading there, pursued by alliance forces chasing them from the west. Alliance commanders say they intend to crush the Taliban between the two advancing armies, one moving westward from Taloqan, the other eastward from Mazar-e-Sharif.

As Taliban fighters flee, President Bush urged the opposition not to take Kabul before a broad-based government could be formed.

Abdullah said the rebels would abide by their pledge to wait for a political agreement. But if none is reached "then it is a different situation."

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that while the opposition had effective control of Mazar-e-Sharif, pockets of resistance remained within the city.

"There could always be a counterattack," Rumsfeld said. The city's airport had not yet been secured, he said, though he thought it would be soon.

Taliban officials acknowledged their forces were in a "strategic withdrawal," apparently toward Kabul and the ethnic Pashtun strongholds to the south. The alliance is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, while Pashtuns _ the nation's largest ethnic group _ form the core of Taliban support.

Abdul Hanan Hemat, chief of the Taliban's Bakhtar news agency, denied claims that Taloqan had fallen.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. Both sides have exaggerated claims in the past. Foreign journalists do not have access to many of the front lines and have been speaking to opposition commanders by satellite phone.

The opposition's Abdullah said the battle for Taloqan started at 10 p.m. Saturday and continued until late Sunday afternoon. Abdullah said about 200 Taliban soldiers were killed in the fighting, but that most of the Taliban force escaped to the north toward Kunduz.

U.S. aircraft, including B-52 bombers, blasted Taliban positions on the front line about 30 miles north of Kabul and were seeking out retreating bands of Taliban fighters.

In other developments:

+ Bin Laden likely has some chemical or biological weapons, and U.S. forces have bombed some sites in Afghanistan that could have been involved in producing them, Rumsfeld said.

+ Two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists have acknowledged that they met bin Laden at least twice this year, Pakistani investigators said. The scientists said the meetings concerned construction of a flour mill.

+ Britain confirmed for the first time that it has troops in Afghanistan, providing assistance to the opposition.

Jubilant opposition spokesmen claimed the Taliban had been routed across the north, except in the provinces of Kunduz and Badghis.

Abdullah said the opposition would strike today in Kunduz _ a province bordering Tajikistan _ although the area's Pashtun population could provide stiffer resistance than elsewhere in the north. Abdullah said the Taliban in Kunduz were fully encircled.

Opposition official Noor Ahmad said anti-Taliban troops seized Qala-i-Nau, capital of Badghis province west of Mazar-e-Sharif. The opposition column was advancing toward the western city of Herat, spokesmen said.

Rumsfeld said the opposition was putting pressure on Taloqan and Herat but did not elaborate.

The opposition also claimed to have seized Pul-e-Khumri, a key junction on the road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul, though they said Taliban units were still operating in Baghlan province, where the town is located.

Opposition spokesman Mohammed Abil said a Taliban commander in Bamiyan province, west of Kabul, switched sides to join the opposition.

The seizure of Mazar-e-Sharif, 45 miles south of the Uzbek border, after days of intensive U.S. bombing marked a turnaround in the opposition's fortunes.

Echoing Rumsfeld's comments about enclaves of resistance, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said pro-Taliban fighters were still holding out in the city _ including about 100 armed Pakistanis and Arabs holed up in a former girls' school.

The people of the city, which had been in Taliban hands for three years before its capture Friday, celebrated the alliance victory by flouting the harsh social and religious restrictions that had been imposed by the Taliban's widely resented Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Men lined up at barber shops to shave off their beards, which had been mandatory under the Taliban's interpretation of Islam; music, previously banned by the Taliban, blared from homes and shops; and women threw off their head-to-toe veils known as burqas, the Pakistani-based Afghan Islamic Press reported.

Mazar-e-Sharif could serve as a staging area for the U.S.-led coalition to rush humanitarian supplies and weapons into the country. The airport could be used to launch attacks on Taliban positions.

Along the Kabul front, opposition forces were eager to advance, said Gen. Alim Khan, a senior commander. "If we want to enter Kabul, we won't care about U.S. willingness or unwillingness," he said.

Bush wants the opposition to hold off on assaulting Kabul to avoid a repeat of factional fighting that destroyed the capital and killed 50,000 people from 1992 to 1996, when the opposition governed.

"We will encourage our friends to head south . . . but not into the city of Kabul itself," Bush said at a news conference in New York with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan, a key ally in the campaign, opposes an alliance takeover of Kabul.

_ Information from the Associated Press, Washington Post and New York Times was used in this report.

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