U.S. bombing intense near key northern Afghan city
NEAR MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan (CNN) -- U.S.-led forces launched an intensive bombing attack on Taliban front lines defending Mazar-e Sharif, a strategic city in northeastern Afghanistan.
Northern Alliance commanders told CNN that the bombings were an attempt to target some al Qaeda positions in the hills east of the city, where plumes of smoke rose steadily on the horizon.
The commanders also claimed a victory near Mazar-e Sharif, saying the alliance's forces had captured large portions of Aq-Kupruk, about 31 miles south of the city, and that hundreds of Taliban fighters had either defected or been captured.
Northern Alliance Gen. Atiqullah Baryalai said his soldiers had taken over large portions of the Aq-Kupruk district. The Northern Alliance reported that 400 Taliban fighters had defected, 200 had been captured and about 50 military vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, had been seized.
These reports could not be independently confirmed. Taliban officials only said that fighting had erupted overnight around Mazar-e Sharif.
Mazar-e Sharif is considered a key target for Northern Alliance forces. They controlled the city until the Taliban pushed them out in 1998. A key road also leads from the city to the capital of Kabul, which is 200 miles (320 kilometers) away to the south.
More strikes north of capital
Earlier Saturday, U.S.-led forces launched repeated strikes in and around the village of Starqash, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Kabul.
Aircraft were seen overhead, launching individual ordnance that resulted in flashes of light, flames and plumes of smoke on the ground. The strikes lasted about an hour and a half.
U.S. B-52 bombers also targeted other Taliban frontline forces north of Kabul, opening the way for an advance on the capital within days, according to Northern Alliance commanders.
Skies were quiet in the southern city of Kandahar, which has been repeatedly bombed since the start of the U.S. air campaign nearly a month ago. Jets were seen overhead, but no bombing was heard.
A brief round of bombing struck Jalalabad in southeastern Afghanistan late Friday night.
In a briefing with reporters, Pentagon officials also said airstrikes were made on targets in the city of Konduz near Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan.
The U.S. used 65 strike aircraft in Saturday's raids, including 55 carrier-based fighter jets, between six and eight long-range bombers and some land-based tactical fighters.
Pentagon officials said Saturday's raids continued to focus on the network of tunnels and caves used by Taliban and al Qaeda forces
U.S. blames crashes on poor weather
Meanwhile, a Taliban spokesman in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Saturday claimed that Taliban fighters had shot down an unmanned U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the Lagham province in eastern Afghanistan.
U.S. military officials said a Predator aircraft -- an unarmed U.S. Air Force surveillance drone vehicle -- was reported missing Friday while on a mission in Afghanistan. The officials blamed bad weather as the cause of its disappearance.
There was no plan to recover the aircraft, the officials said, and no sensitive technology will be compromised by not doing so.
Pentagon officials also said bad weather was the cause of a search-and-rescue helicopter's crash in Afghanistan on Friday. The aircraft's crew was rescued by another helicopter. Four military personnel were injured, but none had life-threatening injuries.
The damaged helicopter was later destroyed by F-14 fighter jets from the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Mullah Abdul Salem Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, said Saturday during a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, that Taliban forces had shot down a U.S. helicopter and a U.S. airplane.
"Many people have been killed," Zaeef said. "There is no possibility of anyone being alive."
But the U.S. Central Command emphatically denied that claim in a statement that said: "No U.S. helicopters were shot down in Afghanistan."
The United States already has put an undisclosed number of Special Forces in northern Afghanistan to help with targeting and other liaison initiatives. More Special Forces troops are supposed to enter the country, but freezing rain has hampered efforts to deploy them.
"The ones who are presently trying to get in have not yet successfully gotten in," U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said at Friday's Pentagon media briefing.
New surveillance aircraft deployed
The Pentagon received deployment orders for sophisticated ground surveillance equipment to help hunt down bin Laden and members of his al Qaeda network.
The deployment order called for JSTARS -- Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System aircraft that can track vehicular and ground troop movement -- and for Global Hawks, a long-range unmanned aircraft used for ground surveillance, to join Operation Enduring Freedom.
"That will be helpful when you're looking for trucks or SUVs or others that are moving around," Stufflebeem said Friday.
Stufflebeem also said U.S. forces are "tightening the noose" around bin Laden.
He added that bin Laden is an "elusive character" and "it's going to be a difficult problem" to find him without better and more timely information from Taliban-controlled territory.
U.S. reports anti-Taliban uprisings in south
While U.S. officials said they were confident in the military campaign's progress, they admitted lack of intelligence and other variables, such as poor weather, made it difficult to get comprehensive reports.
"We know we are putting severe stress on them," Stufflebeem said. "We know we're having success, but it's also very difficult to get good reports."
U.S. defense officials also have received indications that opposition forces may be rising up against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have had a stronghold in recent years.
U.S. officials were working to establish ties with those opposition tribes to provide them with support, Stufflebeem said.
At least one anti-Taliban tribal leader has reportedly entered Afghanistan in hopes of rallying others. Hamid Karzai, 43, is the leader of a Pashtun tribe known as the Popalzai.
Karzai's brother said Thursday that Karzai survived an ambush by Taliban forces and was still in Afghanistan. On Saturday, Zaeef said that U.S. forces had rescued Karzai and took him out of Afghanistan. Neither report could be independently confirmed.
Karzai's family has opposed the Taliban since 1995. His father, Abdul Ahad Karzai, was assassinated in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1999.
The Popalzai tribe, which has several hundred thousand people, is concentrated in areas around Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual capital.
CNN Correspondent Satinder Bindra contributed to this report.
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