Afghanistan's northern alliance claimed to have pushed its extremist Islamic opponents out of the north's biggest city Sunday, a day after the Taliban claimed to have captured it.
The Taliban said Mazar-e-Sharif was calm Sunday. Reports on the situation in the city 190 miles north of the Afghan capital could not immediately be independently con-firmed.The Taliban, whose name means "students of Islam," emerged in 1994, pledging to bring peace to Afghanistan after years of civil war. In the areas they control, they have barred girls from school and confined most women to their homes.
Indian-based Afghan Ambassador Masood Khalili, who has remained loyal to the president the Taliban ousted from the capital two years ago, claimed Mazar-e-Sharif residents "rose and took up arms and fought along with government soldiers" to push the Taliban out. Taliban casualties were heavy, but had no details or information on alliance casualties, Khalili said.
A fierce defense of Mazar-e-Sharif had been expected. Its loss would be a severe blow to an opposition backed into a dwindling corner of northern Afghanistan, and a boost to the Taliban's four-year-old campaign to impose their strict interpretation of Islamic rule on the entire country.
The anti-Taliban alliance was also under pressure Sunday near Kabul in the Panjshir Valley, losing a few miles of territory in overnight fighting where ousted military chief Ahmed Shah Masood has struggled to hold ground since he and President Burhanuddin Rabbani lost the capital two years ago.
Spokesman Wakeel Ahmad Muttakeel, reached by satellite phone at Taliban military headquarters in the southern city of Kandahar, said Mazar-e-Sharif was calm and completely under their control Sunday. But several opposition sources had reported sporadic street fighting before Khalili claimed a victory.
Mazar-e-Sharif is inhabited mostly by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, while the Taliban, like most other Afghans, are Pashtuns. The Taliban are Sunni, while the Hezb-e-Wahadat militia that calls Mazar-e-Sharif its stronghold is made up of Shiites. Residents resented Taliban attempts last year to impose their version of Islam on Mazar-e-Sharif.