Kabul - The opposition Northern Alliance said on Tuesday it had dealt the biggest blow to the Taliban since US airstrikes started a month ago, with the capture of three key districts in northern Afghanistan.
The fall of Zari, Keshendeh and Aq-Kupruk districts, reported by commander Atta Mohammad's force, took the opposition coalition a step closer to the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Atta's publicist, Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem, told AFP the three districts had fallen in heavy fighting in which 200 Taliban were killed and 300 had surrendered.
The territory 70 kilometres south of Mazar-i-Sharif has swung backward and forwards between the two sides for several days, while US warplanes have carried out intense raids on Taliban lines.
Nadeem said that among those captured was the Taliban's northern commander Mullah Qair. "He was injured and we're holding him prisoner. He's one of Mullah Omar's important commanders."
There were celebrations at the Northern Alliance headquarters, Nadeem said, but the alliance is well aware that each attack is often quickly followed by a counter-offensive.
Meanwhile, Pakistani officials said a US military helicopter had crashed in Pakistan and the Taliban claimed four US servicemen were killed. Taliban fighters displayed what they said was a US helicopter control panel in the streets of Kabul on Tuesday, residents said.
Pakistani officials in Baluchistan province confirmed a helicopter crashed in the area early on Monday after taking fire from the Taliban, but would not comment on casualties.
US warplanes pounded Taliban positions in northern and northeast Afghanistan on the 31st day of their operation to force the Islamic militia to hand over Osama bin Laden, accused mastermind of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
According to anti-Taliban forces, they took complete control of Zari at dawn after an all-night battle.
Zari is just west of Aq-Kupruk and Keshendeh, where fighting has also raged this week as the opposition Northern Alliance tries to press toward Taliban-held Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province.
Taliban Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said before the opposition claimed its big victory that the alliance had suffered heavy casualties for no result.
"The internal crusade forces (opposition) tried eight times during the night to launch an offensive in Keshendeh and Aq-Kupruk," Muttaqi said. "They are suffering heavy casualties."
The northern provinces of Balkh and Samangan have shaped up as a crucial battlefield in the month-old US campaign. They border on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, from where supplies and US troops can enter Afghanistan.
US warplanes struck Taliban frontlines close to the Tajik border on Tuesday in their sixth attack in the region in the last 10 days.
But a month after the first air strikes, the Taliban Islamic militia remained defiant in its refusal to hand over terror suspect Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network.
"We are ready for a long war and we hope to defeat the United States, which the rest of the world calls a superpower," Muttaqi said on Monday.
"The US should revise its wrong, terrorist policies, otherwise this war, which may last for decades, will burn many Americans and Afghans."
The Northern Alliance, which controls about 10 percent of Afghanistan, continued preparations for a threatened ground offensive on the shattered capital Kabul.
Still, 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. - Sapa-AFP