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Burns: Northern Alliance gaining ground?

Chris Burns
Chris Burns  

(CNN) – Conflicting reports have emerged over whether Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance opposition group has made advances inside Afghanistan against the Taliban military.

The Alliance says its true; the Taliban claims the opposition is lying.

Chris Burns has been traveling with the Northern Alliance, and following its battles with the ruling Taliban.

BURNS: The Taliban ambassador called it a mere lie the claim of advances by the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance claims advances almost every other day.

Also, (there is) the question of defection of troops and commanders on the Taliban side over to the Northern Alliance. This is what the Northern Alliance has been talking about the last few days. In fact, the most significant one in the last few days was one in which they say that 1,200 troops and 40 commanders abandoned the Taliban, went over to the other side. Without firing a shot, the Northern Alliance took control of the main north-south supply route for the Taliban. Again, we can only pass that word on and say that we cannot confirm that independently. That's what we try to do in every single report and we wait for Taliban reaction, which up to now has been denial, denial, denial.

So it's a bit of a game of “he said, he said” when it comes to reporting these because a lot of that fighting -- unless it's happening down here along the fronts between here and Kabul -- it is in far-removed, isolated, very mountainous and rugged areas, very difficult for us to get to. And the Northern Alliance isn't all that anxious to take us up there in the first place, so it’s very, very difficult to confirm any of those reports. All we can do is pass those on.

We did have, about a week ago, some admission by a Taliban source that they had lost ground in the north. And, in fact, the U.S. airstrikes in the last 24 hours (have hit) around the bases at Mazar-e-Sharif, that strategic northern town belonging to the Taliban which the Northern Alliance is trying to take. And if they did, they would really gain control over most of the north there. That does indicate that the Taliban are seriously getting hit and it could very well be that the Northern Alliance would make a move on that city if they could in the coming days.

We did also watch some artillery fire down this way. In fact, in the last few minutes, we have heard at least three rounds of heavy artillery fire, presumably from the Northern Alliance, again pounding away at the Taliban. We saw some rockets and some other heavy artillery pounding away at the Taliban. However, the Northern Alliance is holding back on any kind of offensive. They say they would like to see some U.S. airstrikes on those Taliban positions before they proceed.

CNN: Is the Northern Alliance asking the United States military very specifically for air cover while they try to take more land?

BURNS: Well, I should qualify that, actually. It's Northern Alliance commanders we spoke to on the ground who obviously would be most attuned to what the situation is there and what their needs are. However, at the upper echelons of power among the Northern Alliance, the foreign minister we spoke to last night said he was very happy with what the airstrikes were doing and that he said that they were making a marked effect on the Taliban.

However, if you do talk to the commanders on the ground, they'd like to see those airstrikes (hit) those Taliban positions. And, no, it's hard to tell really why they're not striking at those positions right now but … obviously the strategy of the first few days of those strikes is to knock out air defenses so that the jets can fly lower. Perhaps we'll see that in the coming days.

CNN: Can you confirm for us whether it's the Northern Alliance's understanding that whether the United States actually puts ground troops inside of Afghanistan may depend on how much success the Northern Alliance has in the territory that it takes?

BURNS: Well absolutely -- they're very much aware of that. In fact, they tell me they're not really counting on the U.S. forces coming in as ground troops, at least to fight a regular battle as opposed to perhaps commando teams sent in to fight suspected terrorist positions. What they would like -- they're really counting on air cover. They're hoping for air cover so that they can advance with a fight that they've been doing for the last five, six years.

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