Deposed Government Retakes Military Base
BAGHRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ Afghanistan’s deposed government recaptured a key air base north of the capital today, in its biggest victory since the Taliban religious army drove it from Kabul last month.
The Taliban army retaliated with an air raid on the base, dropping bombs from a Russian-made Sukoi 19 fighter that missed the base and hit mud huts nearby. Witnesses said several people were killed, their homes turned to rubble.
The capture of Baghram, the only military airfield near Kabul, gives forces of the deposed government a base from which to mount air strikes on Taliban forces in the capital 30 miles to the south.
The Taliban army of former religious students seized Kabul on Sept. 27, and now control about two-thirds of the country in its bid to impose strict Islamic rule on Afghanistan.
At the air base, the charred hulks of fighter jets and gunships flanked the runway, remnants of earlier battles. On the tarmac, the bodies of two dead Taliban soldiers lay where they had fallen during the nightlong fight.
Soldiers said a helicopter gunship with Taliban fighters on board was shot down as it tried to take off from Baghram.
Ahmet Shah Massood, former government military chief, quickly surrounded the retaken Baghram airfield with tanks, armored personnel carriers and anti-aircraft weapons.
In Kabul, Afghans who walked throughout the night to flee the battle said fighting had been heavy at Baghram. There were no definitive reports of casualties, however, and hospitals in Kabul said they had received only a few wounded from Baghram.
When Massood’s forces fled Kabul, they apparently flew out four fighter jets but left behind Russian-made helicopter gunships.
It wasn’t clear what weaponry and equipment remained in Baghram when Massood’s troops took over the airport.
Massood’s ally against the Taliban, warlord Rashid Dostum, has a fleet of fighter jets stationed at his northern base of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Dostum and Massood agreed last week to join forces against the Taliban, saying they wanted a broad-based, moderate government for Afghanistan. Dostum sent hundreds of troops and Soviet-made tanks to the front Thursday to fight alongside Massood’s army.
Pakistan’s interior minister, Nasrullah Babar, has been shuttling between the Taliban fighters and Dostum _ who controls the country’s second-largest army after the Taliban _ to try to broker a peace agreement.
Massood claimed Friday that Taliban leaders initiated the peace talks to try to break the alliance and buy time to prepare for their next offensive.
Since taking Kabul, the new Taliban rulers have moved quickly to impose their interpretation of Islam, preventing women from working, closing girls’ schools, and forcing men to wear beards and skullcaps or turbans.
``The Taliban has lost more by winning Kabul because they have proven themselves to be unpopular,″ Massood told reporters, in his first news conference since fleeing the capital. ``They have lost support of the people ... The Islamic fundamentalism is not popular among Afghans.″