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Tuesday January 16, 2001

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Taliban claim to capture two key districts in Afghanistan

By The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan's Taliban rulers scored major victories against opposition forces Saturday, capturing two key districts in northern Takhar province, a Taliban official said.

The Taliban seized Hajaghar and Ikhanum districts, near Afghanistan's northern frontier with the Central Asian state of Tajikistan, Abdul Wakil Omar, a Taliban spokesman in the Afghan capital of Kabul, told The Associated Press.

But the northern-based opposition rejected the Taliban claim and said the ruling militia's assault had been driven back.

No confirmation of the contradictory statements was available because of the remoteness of the embattled region.

Hajaghar and Ikhanum are key routes from Tajikistan to opposition forces on the battlefield in northern Afghanistan. If the Taliban have captured them, it would be a severe blow to the opposition, led by ousted president Burhaunddin Rabbani and his deposed defense chief Ahmed Shah Massood.

Backed by fighter planes, tanks and artillery, the Taliban said they attacked the two districts, forcing opposition troops to flee. Scores of fighters were killed.

The Taliban also said they captured Hajaghar's airport, some 210 miles north of Kabul. The official said they were now trying to capture the nearby district of Dasht-i-Qala.

The Taliban, who captured most of Takhar province last year in a string of victories, had lost Hajaghar and Ikhanum to the opposition in November.

The Taliban are mostly Sunni Muslims and Pashtun, Afghanistan's majority ethnic group. They are fighting the opposition forces on several fronts in an attempt to capture the entire country.

The opposition, made up of ethnic and religious minorities, has been squeezed into several small pockets, mostly in the country's northeast.

Despite international isolation and U.N. sanctions, the Taliban have maintained a firm grip on the areas they control and are gradually expanding their rule in the country's northern regions, which once were considered opposition strongholds.

The Taliban accuses Russia of arming and supporting the opposition. The opposition denies the charge and says Pakistan is backing the Taliban.

The latest Taliban victories would come just days before fresh U.N. sanctions against the Taliban take effect to press the ruling militia to hand over Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden to the United States or a third country for trial.

Washington accuses bin Laden of masterminding the bombing of two of its embassies in East Africa in 1998. Bin Laden denies the charge and the Taliban say the United States has failed to give any evidence of his involvement.



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