Taliban braces for battle over Mazar-i-Sharif

Kabul - In one of the heaviest nights of bombing in the 34-day-old US war on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, waves of jets pounded frontline positions of the hardline militia into dawn this morning.

At least 40 bombs were heard exploding on the frontline where Taliban fighters are dug in facing the forces of the opposition Northern Alliance, said witnesses from the front.

Four huge blasts rocked the area at about 6am, rattling windows and shaking the ground in the town of Jabal-us-Saraj, several kilometres behind the frontlines.

The planes roared over the capital, Kabul, for several hours and dropped about eight or nine bombs on the city, said reporter Sayed Salahuddin. Officials said they had no estimate yet of damage or casualties.

The Taliban are believed to be sheltering Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Information Ministry official Abdul Hanan Himat said civilians were killed in southern Kandahar, powerbase of the Taliban and their supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and others died as they drove through a strategic pass to the west of Kabul.

"Fifteen people have been killed and 25 wounded when a bomb hit on Thursday afternoon at Kandahar's Mirwais Mina hospital," said Himat.

Several people travelling through the Haji Gak pass on the only Taliban-controlled route to the west and north of Kabul were killed, he said.

Meanwhile, Afghan forces braced for a bloody battle for control of Mazar-i-Sharif as US bombers on Thursday battered a brigade of Islamic radicals fighting to keep the key northern city in Taliban hands.

US-backed Afghan opposition forces claimed they advanced within striking range of the city and were consolidating their positions 22km away.

Taliban officials said US B-52 bombers conducted their heaviest bombardment yet of the battlefront south of the city and a spokesperson for a militant group said 85 Pakistani pro-Taliban volunteers had been killed.

Thousands of Arab and Pakistani fighters are said to be deployed in support of the Taliban militia in the strategic northern town.

But heavy US air strikes, guided by American commandos on the ground, have weakened Taliban morale and given the opposition Northern Alliance a chance, said Qari Qudratullah, a spokesperson for alliance commander Atta Mohammed.

Held by the Taliban for the past three years, Mazar-i-Sharif is considered a major prize in the campaign because of its airport and its location on a key supply route near the border with Uzbekistan.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld joined humanitarian organisations in warnings that Afghan civilians faced starvation, and accused al-Qaeda and the Taliban of blocking relief supplies.

At the same time, US President George W Bush sought to boost domestic support for the war on terror. Bush scored points on the financial front as governments around the world joined him in the crackdown on firms suspected of funding Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

The president also assured the public that his government was doing its utmost to combat bio-terrorism after a sheaf of anthrax-laced letters caused the death of four people.

The remarks came amid growing doubts over the government's ability to prevent new terrorist attacks.

A Washington Post/ABC television poll released on Thursday found just 52 percent of respondents expressing confidence in their government's ability to prevent future terrorist attacks, down 14 points since a similar survey just after the September onslaught.

On the diplomatic front, various leaders reiterated their support for the US-led coalition against terror, though Bush faced pressure from his Muslim allies to get the job done quickly.

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