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Key city has fallen, says Taliban

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The Taliban confirms the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif has fallen to Northern Alliance troops in what could be a key development for the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.

The Taliban news agency Bakhtar said the city had fallen, adding that Taliban forces had made a strategic withdrawal from the city and were trying to consolidate in a town to the southeast.

The fall of Mazar-e Sharif -- first claimed Friday by the opposition -- would be a serious blow to the Taliban, but the news agency quoted the Taliban as saying it was only one battle in the midst of a war.

Asked whether the Pentagon could confirm the city fell to the Northern Alliance, Col. Rick Thomas of the U.S. Central Command told CNN, "The reports appear to be accurate."

Seven days of intense bombing by allied planes changed the course of the battle for Mazar-e Sharif, and threatened the Taliban with heavy losses if they had stayed.

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The Northern Alliance claimed Friday its troops had entered and gained control of the city, and that 90 Taliban troops were killed in the takeover, which began about 4 p.m. Friday (6:30 a.m. ET).

"In a short period of time, we entered Mazar-e Sharif," said Northern Alliance Gen. Rashid Dostum, speaking through an interpreter. "The people from Taliban who were shot are in the hospital but those who were healthy left the city."

Some U.S. officials said Friday there were reports of Taliban defections to the Northern Alliance in the city, and that in some cases entire small units were changing sides.

There was also a report that two Taliban commanders had turned on each other, were fighting each other and committing atrocities in Mazar-e Sharif, but a U.S. official could not confirm that report.

The strategic city was controlled by Dostum until the Taliban captured it in 1998. It is made up mostly of Uzbeks and Hazaras, ethnic minorities in Pashtun-dominated Afghanistan who have previously given Dostum their loyalty.

The city was a major target Thursday for the U.S.-led air attacks and the Northern Alliance advances.

More than half the combat sorties Thursday were directed at engagement zones near Mazar-e Sharif and north of Kabul, where Bagram air base is located, said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman.

According to Dostum his troops suffered only light casualties in a four-and-a-half hour push on Friday. Only four of his men were killed, while advancing troops killed 90 Taliban soldiers, he said. The claim could not be independently verified.

Dostum said the Alliance has control of "everything" in the city, including the airport. Other Northern Alliance commanders told CNN their forces had captured a smaller airport west of the city, and key heights near Mazar-e Sharif's larger airport.

'Dust in air'

In Washington Stufflebeem said the United States has forces on the ground in the northern part of the country "and they'll be able to confirm what it is we're seeing and hearing."

He said that there were no U.S. military advisers with the alliance troops who claimed to be in Mazar-e Sharif.

"There's a lot of dust in the air right now," Stufflebeem told reporters in Washington. "With that dust in the air, it's very hard to tell exactly what's going on."

CNN reporters near Mazar-e Sharif reported seeing for the first time trucks of ammunition at the Uzbek-Afghan border, which could indicate an effort to resupply the Northern Alliance troops.

Northern Alliance spokesman Younis Kanoni said the Taliban have ordered their forces to withdraw from the area.

U.S. special operations troops have been working alongside the Northern Alliance for weeks, helping set up resupply operations and coordinating strikes by U.S. warplanes.

A strategic city

The area around Mazar-e Sharif has been the scene of heavy fighting for more than three weeks, and U.S. air raids in recent days have been aimed at helping opposition troops gain ground against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban.

Earlier Northern Alliance advances toward the city had been reversed by counterattacks from Taliban forces.

The Taliban have been holding several hill ranges around Mazar-e Sharif, and Northern Alliance officials have said those could take weeks to wrest away.

Stufflebeem said capturing the city would be a psychological blow to the Taliban, and would provide a land bridge.

He also said that if a land bridge is established, it would require forces to provide security, adding that troops from other countries would be under consideration for that role.

-- CNN correspondents David Ensor, Kamal Hyder and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.


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