Bombing further isolates Kandahar
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Intense bombing Monday destroyed two bridges leading from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, further isolating the Taliban's last stronghold as U.S. Marines and Afghan opposition groups prepared for a possible final assault, sources said.
Kandahar has only one access and exit route, almost isolating it from the surrounding countryside, CNN has learned.
Airstrikes pounded the Kandahar area Sunday night and Monday, mostly centered on the airport east of the city. Villagers reported exchanges of gunfire and artillery fire in that area, sources said, but the fighting could not be independently confirmed.
Reports of civilian casualties continued to surface. But Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday he was not certain those reports are true.
"We know for a fact that these were legitimate military targets in that area that were struck," Stufflebeem said.
"We know there were no off-target hits, so there were no collateral damage worries in this series of strikes. And therefore, I can't comment on these civilian casualties, because I don't know them to be true."
Anti-Taliban fighters said via satellite phone late Sunday that they were launching an offensive on the airport. Those commanders could not be reached Monday.
People in Kandahar said they feared the city could soon come under attack. And some Taliban fighters in Spin Boldak, a city they control near the Pakistan border, said they felt they were losing support of residents.
No negotiations appeared to be under way to hand over Kandahar. Instead, anti-Taliban forces from the north and east were intent on seizing the airport, then the city, sources said. Those forces said they were working with U.S. and British Special Forces on the ground to guide the air attacks.
Some Taliban officials at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border talked about relinquishing their positions of power and returning to their villages.
Elsewhere, Taliban and Northern Alliance commanders have negotiated the surrender of 3,000 Taliban fighters holed up in the historic northern city of Balkh, several kilometers northwest of Mazar-e Sharif, alliance sources said Monday.
The surrender is to begin Tuesday.
Forces led by Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a top Northern Alliance commander, had encircled the town and were planning an assault, but he decided to meet with Taliban leaders instead. Dostum did not want to launch a push into Balkh because he didn't want to destroy the historic city.
Politically, the town has a large number of Pashtuns, and Dostum doesn't want to alienate them, alliance sources said. American Special Forces were advising Dostum to adopt a more aggressive approach, military sources said.
U.S. forces stand ready
U.S. aircraft, military personnel and supplies poured into a primitive desert airfield throughout the weekend.
Additional aircraft could be heard landing overnight Sunday. The number of U.S. attack and support helicopters on the ground nearly doubled over the weekend.
A U.S. intelligence officer with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit said the military campaign for Kandahar had reached "a culmination point." Maj. James "Bo" Higgins said Sunday no decision had been taken to commit U.S. Marines to the coming battle for Kandahar, but he said a lot of forces were in play.
In addition to Marines, who seized the forward base around the airfield a week ago, the force on the ground near Kandahar also includes Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. Military officers from Britain, Australia and Germany are also on the ground.
The U.S. presence was visible at many levels.
With little threat from Taliban or al Qaeda forces remaining, four U.S. Navy warplanes could be seen flanking an aerial tanker Monday morning, refueling over southern Afghanistan. The contrails of bombing missions crisscrossed the sky.
The Marines have expanded their patrols across southern Afghanistan, both from the air and from armored convoys on the ground. While more activity has been spotted on the ground, no new attacks have been reported since a November 26 strike on a Taliban military convoy.
Afghan opposition forces continued to move toward Kandahar from the north and southeast, with the number of U.S. Marines and other coalition forces building at a desert base here. Armored personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters support U.S. troops in full battle gear.
"In every way, the Taliban is looking at a lot of pressure," Higgins said, "kind of like a snake squeezing in on them. We hope to be able to get them out of there in the pretty near future."
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