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Taliban flees Afghan capital

Taliban military forces deserted the capital of Kabul at dawn today, after a series of stunning military victories by opposition forces over the past four days.

Sporadic small arms fire could be heard from the hills overlooking the city, but the streets were empty of Taliban soldiers and all Taliban military compounds were abandoned.

As they left, the Taliban took eight foreign aid workers, including two Americans, accused of spreading Christianity, witnesses said.

As the sun rose over the Hindu Kush mountains, residents of the capital could be heard shouting out congratulations to one another, honking car horns and ringing bells on their bicycles.

From the rooftop of the Intercontinental Hotel on a hill overlooking Kabul, columns of Taliban vehicles could be seen heading south beginning Monday night. The exodus continued after sunrise.

Northern alliance forces began moving into the capital in pickup trucks loaded with soldiers armed with rifles and rocket launchers. There was no shooting as the opposition forces took over a military barracks that only hours before had been in Taliban hands.

Mohammed Gul, a Kabul resident, said by telephone that the Taliban had evacuated the streets of the city by 5:30 a.m. "Everywhere in the city, there was nobody," Gul said. "The Taliban have all left."

"I think it is great news. It means the initial phase of the campaign is going well," said Army Secretary Thomas White.

White, speaking on CNN, said he thought "a combination of well-targeted air power along with movement on the ground by Northern Alliance forces" prompted the Taliban to flee.

Before the pullout, the Taliban were believed to have about 15,000 fighters defending Kabul, about a third of them Pakistani and Arab volunteers, according to opposition estimates.

The Taliban, which took control of Kabul in 1996, were heading south toward the town of Maidan Shahr, about 25 miles away. As they had in the north of the country, the Islamic militia appeared to have decided to surrender territory rather than fight. By moving south, the fighters seemed ready to fall back toward Kandahar, their last major stronghold

The area around the Taliban spiritual capital is rugged, mountainous terrain littered with caves that are believed to provide hideouts for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist organization.

Weeks of bombing by the United States weakened the Taliban sufficiently for the Northern Alliance to move across enemy lines. On Monday, opposition fighters punched through Taliban defenses outside Kabul after a punishing attack by U.S. B-52 bombers. Taliban positions began to fall one by one along the main road into the capital.

Bush had urged the opposition to avoid entering the city until a broad-based government could be organized to replace the Taliban. But little progress has been made in bringing together the disparate groups in Afghanistan's fractious, multiethnic society.

Herat reportedly

falls to rebel forces

The string of victories by the anti-Taliban forces started Friday with the taking of Mazar-e-Sharif. The alliance capped a four-day dash across the north by overrunning western Afghanistan's biggest city, Herat.

Forces under commander Ismail Khan marched back into the city more than six years after the Taliban seized it from him. Herat, just 80 miles from the border with Iran, has often been an Afghan battleground. The Taliban's takeover of Herat in 1995, and its imposition of a harsh version of Islamic law on what had been a relatively liberal city, proved to be a precursor of the militia's victories in the rest of the country.

After weeks of intensive air bombardment by U.S. warplanes, according to Northern Alliance officials, the land battle for Herat began Sunday and continued until midday Monday, when Taliban troops retreated to the airport outside the city, where heavy fighting was reported continuing Monday afternoon. By evening, the rebel forces were going door to door in search of remaining Taliban fighters.

"The situation here in Herat is very good," one of Khan's top lieutenants by satellite phone from the city. "We are searching now for any more Taliban," said the rebel commander, Sayed Nasir Ahmad Alavi.

The victory in Herat means the rebel forces now control the road all the way to the capital.

Northern Alliance commanders said they also were pushing toward Kunduz, the last Taliban-held city in the north.

Daoud Khan, an alliance commander, said his men had sealed off every possible escape route for the Taliban. He said he could open an attack on Kunduz as early as today.

"The Taliban troops are massed in Kunduz, and they have nowhere to go," he said. "We are ready to attack."

U.S. planes shift attacks to moving targets

In contrast to missions conducted earlier in the war, when American jets bombed fixed, planned targets, the majority of strikes in recent days have been against moving targets, mainly Taliban tanks, armored vehicles, supply trucks and foot soldiers.

Pentagon officials said the American planes have had greater success at hitting those targets not only because the advancing rebel forces have been flushing Taliban troops into the open, but also because of U.S. Special Forces spotters on the ground that have been able to pinpoint targets.

The Northern Alliance says its gains in the last few days show that it can deal with terrorists and the Taliban on its own, without the need for a large number of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan.

"I hope that this problem will not be prolonged throughout the winter," said Abdullah, the alliance foreign minister. "I hope the campaign will end with the objectives fully achieved before the winter, or soon."

In other developments:

The Associated Press, quoting a senior U.S. defense official, said the Pentagon has decided to put military aircraft at one or more airfields in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, on Afghanistan's northern border.

The carrier USS Stennis and its battle group left San Diego on Monday en route to the Arabian Sea. The ship, which carries more than 70 aircraft, will be the fourth U.S. carrier in the region. Pentagon officials said that number is likely to drop back down to three when the Carl Vinson returns home, probably later this year.

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

Northern Alliance drive

Forces opposed to Afghanistan's Taliban rulers broke through front lines outside Kabul on Monday and pushed toward the capital. The Northern Alliance also reportedly captured Herat in the west and was pushing toward Kunduz, the last Taliban-held city in the north. With Monday's conquests, the alliance controlled about 40 percent of Afghanistan.

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