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Taliban soldiers move to reclaim conquered territory

May 29, 1997

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan (AP) _ Hundreds of Taliban soldiers advanced on Mazar-e-Sharif today to avenge their bloody defeat by former allies in the battle for Afghanistan’s north.

Uzbek soldiers were said to be heading south to try to block the advance of the Taliban army, which lost the city in an 18-hour battle on Wednesday _ just four days after Taliban troops marched in without resistance.

The defeat marked the first time since the Islamic army began its conquest of Afghanistan three years ago that it had to retreat from a city it had captured.

The reversal came when an Uzbek general, an enemy-turned-ally, reneged on his new alliance when the Taliban tried to disarm his troops.

New Taliban forces moved through the Salang pass in the Hindu Kush mountains and assembled in Phul-i-Khumri, 100 miles south, for a possible counteroffensive.

Travelers reaching the capital, Kabul, said there was fighting today south of the pass. Taliban forces were being challenged by fighters loyal to Ahmed Shah Masood, the defense chief of the Kabul government ousted by the Taliban last year, they said.

A U.N. convoy evacuated scores of foreign aid workers and journalists to the Uzbekistan border, 35 miles north of Mazar-e-Sharif, ahead of what threatened to be a fierce battle for control of the north.

In Mazar-e-Sharif, residents started removing bloated and fly-covered bodies in the Saeedabad neighborhood, where Taliban soldiers had tried to disarm residents Tuesday. The ensuing skirmish drew in troops of the Uzbek ethnic minority and led to an uprising against the Taliban that spread across the city.

It was not clear how much territory the Taliban abandoned Wednesday.

After the battle, Red Cross workers collected the bodies of more than 100 people killed in the fighting, and treated 70 wounded at one hospital, said Jean-Luc Balatini, a Red Cross spokesman in Kabul.

Charred buildings and twisted and burned hulks of trucks and tanks littered the streets. In the distance, there was an occasional thud of rocket fire.

People on the streets seethed with anger at the Taliban.

``Every foreigner who comes into the north, this will happen to him,″ said Ahmed Ali.

There were unconfirmed reports that the Taliban foreign minister, Mullah Mohammed Ghous, and the appointed administrator of the north, Adbul Razzaq, had either been taken prisoner or killed. Neither local Uzbek commanders nor U.N. officials could confirm that.

Resentment against the Taliban began building in Mazar-e-Sharif almost immediately after 3,000 Taliban fighters _ most of them ethnic Pashtuns _ descended Saturday upon the city, which is dominated by northern Uzbeks and Tajiks. Ethnic tension was one cause of the prolonged factional wars in Afghanistan that followed the expulsion of the occupying Soviets in 1989.

The Taliban troops were able to seize the north after a revolt by Uzbek soldiers against their commander, northern warlord Rashid Dostum. That gave them control of roughly 90 percent of the country _ more than any regime since the Soviet forces.

Malik Pahlawan, the renegade Uzbek general whose revolt last week led to the Taliban capture of Mazar-e-Sharif, turned his back on the alliance late Tuesday.

The Taliban has been pressing to transform the country into a hard-line Islamic republic. The army of former Islamic seminary students has already imposed its harsh brand of Islam in the two-thirds of Afghanistan they firmly control, sparking resentment from residents and inspiring fear among more secular, neighboring countries.

The northern warlord Dostum, who fled to Turkey on Sunday just before his stronghold was overrun, said Wednesday he would return to his country as soon as ``conditions are right.″

A spokesman for ousted Afghan defense chief Ahmed Shah Massood, who is fighting the Islamic militia from mountain strongholds in the northeast, said anti-Taliban forces had retaken the northern provinces of Takhar, Faryab, Jozjan and Sari-pul.

Residents in the Takhar provincial capital of Talqan ripped down the Taliban’s white flag after its forces were driven out of the town, said a man who identified himself as Abdullah.

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