Taliban warns of 'decades' of war

KABUL: Afghanistan's Taliban regime said Monday it was ready for decades of war as it fought a new opposition drive, backed by "cowardly" US airstrikes, towards the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

At the same time, the military commander of the opposition forces said his troops were ready to march on the capital Kabul, although on the ground the anti-Taliban army looked far from ready for a major push.

And while the United States pressed its nearly month-old air offensive, there were few signs of progress in its drive to root out the terrorists behind the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

"We are ready for a long war and we hope to defeat the United States, which the rest of world calls a superpower," Taliban Education Minister and spokesman Amir Khan Muttaqi told reporters here.

"The US should revise its wrong, terrorist policies, otherwise this war, which may last for decades, will burn many Americans and Afghans."

Fighting has raged in north-central Afghanistan where rebels of the Northern Alliance were trying to move toward Mazar-i-Sharif, potentially a key supply and staging area in their fight against the Islamic Taliban militia.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said the militia had turned back a "severe offensive" in three districts south of Mazar-i-Sharif.

He said that 30-35 opposition troops died in the battle, with 10 civilians killed and 15 wounded by US bombs dropped in support of the campaign.

The opposition claimed Saturday to have taken one of the districts, Aq-Kupruk, located 70 kilometers south of Mazar-i-Sharif. But it said the Taliban later reclaimed a part of the district.

Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem, an opposition spokesman close to the front lines, confirmed that their offensive had been halted but said it was to avoid the US bombs. He said the attack was soon renewed.

"If we take these districts, we can move to take Shebarghan (a town to the west of Mazar-i-Sharif) and then we'll be closer to Mazar," Nadeem said.

He said the US bombing was virtually non-stop. "I haven't seen the bombs stop falling for more than 10 minutes since yesterday morning."

The districts south of Mazar-i-Sharif are one of three frontline areas targeted by the Americans in their drive to topple the Taliban for harboring Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, wanted for the September 11 terror attacks on the United States.

US B-52 bombers and strike aircraft also have been pounding Taliban positions in northeastern Afghanistan where the Northern Alliance are fighting for control of supply routes into neighboring Tajikistan ahead of winter.

American planes have also hit at Taliban forces dug in about 50 kilometers north of Kabul. A B-52 made four runs Monday over the Taliban entrenched on a hill that dominates the western skyline of the Shomali valley.

"The Americans tried to destroy our airfields and radar systems thinking that our system in Afghanistan is also computerised, but our main strength, our fighters, are untouched," Muttaqi said.

"They have been attacking from the air but in our tradition we call that a cowardly war." Troops of the Northern Alliance, which controls about 10 percent of Afghanistan, continued preparations for a threatened ground offensive on the shattered capital.

"We are ready, but it all depends on our strategy and the circumstances," opposition military chief General Mohammad Qasim Fahim told reporters at a military parade at a base in Jabal Seraj north of Kabul.

But the anti-Taliban alliance remains desperately short of fuel, cash and ammunition, and junior commanders said they were far from ready to launch a major offensive.

The United States, which began its campaign on October 7, has increased its special forces' presence in recent days but hopes have faded for a breakthrough before the harsh Afghan winter that is due in a few weeks.

Diplomats and US officials also warned that Taliban troops could increasingly pull back to the cities and would be impossible to dislodge without tough house-to-house combat.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on a tour of the region, said Sunday the campaign was making "measurable progress." But it continued to be dogged by reports of civilian casualties from the bombings.

Taliban officials and the Pakistani-based AIP said at least 36 civilians were killed early Monday. The Taliban said 18 people were killed in Aq-Kupruk while AIP said six died in one house in nearby Keshendeh town.

AIP said the six dead were all from the Hazara community -- Shiite Muslims who oppose the Taliban, which is dominated by the mainly Sunni Pashtun tribes.

The United States is under some pressure to halt the bombings before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts in mid-November, but Rumsfeld said the threat of new terrorist strikes meant there could be no pause in the bombing.
( AFP )