Alliance faction claims fighting around Bamian
TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Anti-Taliban forces based in Iran claimed 4,000 Taliban fighters have joined the opposition Northern Alliance and reported heavy fighting in central Afghanistan on Sunday.
Yunus Vaezi, a leader of Iran-based Hizb-e-Vahdat, or Unity Party, told CNN a radio contact reports that more than 4,000 fighters -- mainly ethnic Uzbeks -- have joined the Northern Alliance forces in the Jozejan province.
Vaezi also said heavy fighting began a couple days ago between the opposition and the Taliban around the central Afghan town of Bamian, and that fighting was still continuing Sunday morning.
The Northern Alliance -- a loose confederation of anti-Taliban forces, including the remnants of Afghanistan's pre-Taliban government -- is believed to control between 5 percent and 10 percent of the country.
"In different parts of Afghanistan -- especially in northern Afghanistan, northwestern Afghanistan -- large districts are being liberated from the Taliban," both through Northern Alliance action and by defections of Taliban troops, Abdullah Abdullah, the alliance's foreign minister, told CNN.
Vaezi said a week of U.S.-led airstrikes have so far left the Taliban alone in the Bamian area, and the airport in Bamian has escaped the raids. The Taliban were protecting what Vaezi said was the only open route from the capital, Kabul, to the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Vaezi said Hizb-e-Vahdat, a Shiite Muslim faction, were poised to cut off the Taliban supply route to the north.
The plains outside Bamian were once the site of two massive stone statues of Buddha that dated from the third century. The Taliban destroyed them in March, considering them graven images that were an affront to Islam.
The area was the scene of heavy fighting in May, with the Taliban pushing Hizb-e-Vahdat forces out of two villages near Bamian.
Northern Alliance leaders said they want to move against Kabul soon as well, but there was no sign of a buildup along the alliance's front lines Sunday.
U.S.-led raids around Kabul have targeted the city's airport, an artillery base and a military academy. The strikes also have targeted Taliban forces in at least three northern provinces.
The Northern Alliance leaders said they want to coordinate their attacks with U.S. strikes on Afghanistan. But Washington is pressing to see a post-Taliban government set up before any push on the capital in hopes of avoiding the kind of factional strife that contributed to the Taliban's rise to power in 1996. But the alliance, also known as the United Front, has so far rejected the idea.
"Lack of a political agreement at this stage will not affect the tactics used in the military operation," Abdullah said. He said Afghanistan must choose its own leaders, and no political solution could be imposed by outsiders.
"This decision should be one for the people of Afghanistan, not for neighboring countries of Afghanistan," he said. "That's how the interest of all neighboring countries of Afghanistan could be protected."
Abdullah said he was concerned about Pakistan, the Taliban's major source of support for several years and now a crucial U.S. ally in the anti-terrorist campaign.
Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has said his country has a strategic interest in a stable Afghanistan with a government that "takes into consideration the ethnic layout." The Taliban draw most of their support from the Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, while the Northern Alliance is largely Uzbek and Tajik.
But Abdullah warned against basing Afghanistan's future on Pakistan's concerns.
"Listening to Islamabad more than listening to the Afghans resulted in the present situation," he told CNN.
Correspondents Kasra Naji and Chris Burns contributed to this report.
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