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Chance: Mazar-e Sharif battles

NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN (CNN) -- Northern Alliance forces claimed on Thursday that they have made advances in their efforts to win control of the strategic Taliban-held town of Mazar-e Sharif in north Afghanistan.

Also, north of the capital of Kabul, U.S.-led air strikes continued to target Taliban forces on the front line.

CNN's Matthew Chance is based near Kabul. He filed this report.

CHANCE: There are reports filtering down to us from that strategic northern city of Mazar-e Sharif that there have been some significant territorial gains made by the opposition Northern Alliance in the past 24 hours.

They say they've advanced to within six kilometers of the outskirts of the city, taking some 500 Taliban defectors, convincing them to join the ranks of the Northern Alliance. They also say they've captured some 280 Taliban fighters as prisoners of war. There's no independent confirmation at this point about those territorial gains or about those figures that are being quoted to us by Northern Alliance officials.

In the meantime, let me bring you up to date on exactly what military developments are taking place in this area from where I'm speaking to you now, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. There has been a day of intensified U.S.-led coalition air strikes, particularly on those Taliban frontline positions north of Kabul. Throughout the course of today, we've been hearing war planes of the coalition roar across the sky. Just a few seconds later, thundering explosions literally shake the building from which we're talking to you right now, sending plumes of black and white smoke high into the skies over those frontline positions.

So, it's another indication of the extent to which the United States-led coalition is assisting the Northern Alliance forces here on the ground in their military objectives, targeting those frontline positions. There's still no indication of the Northern Alliance forces near Kabul making any advance on the Afghan capital.

CNN: Just for the sake of discussion, let's give the Northern Alliance claims the benefit of the doubt, saying that they are within six kilometers, or about four miles of Mazar-e Sharif. Even if that is the case, is it a case of being so close yet so far, because of the mountains that would stand in the way?

CHANCE: That's right. There are big Taliban defensive positions virtually encircling at least the northern, northeast and northwestern positions north of Mazar-e Sharif. There are big Taliban fortifications there. The U.S.-led coalition has been repeatedly striking those fortifications in an attempt to give the Northern Alliance at least some advantage in this battle.

But up to now, of the several weeks of that bombing campaign on those Taliban front lines north of Mazar-e Sharif, there hasn't been any indication that the Northern Alliance have managed to make good use of those U.S.-led air strikes and to really capitalize on them and to move within striking distance of the city itself.

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