Taliban Advancing North After Taking 2 Key Towns

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan's Islamic Taliban militia said it was thrusting up the Salang Pass and toward the Panjsher Valley after capturing two key towns from opposition forces north of Kabul on Thursday.

"Our forces are advancing towards Salang and Panjsher," Qari Rahmatullah, a senior Taliban communications officer, said in Kabul. "We have taken many prisoners and there are many enemy bodies lying on both sides of the road."

He said Taliban forces had captured Jabal-os-Siraj, a garrison town 70 kilometers north of Kabul, in a two-pronged assault from the south and east early in the morning.

They had also seized Gulbahar, about 15 kilometers to the northeast at the mouth of the rugged Panjsher Valley.

Rahmatullah said the Taliban had captured 40 tanks from opposition forces led by ousted government commander Ahmad Shah Masood and his former rival, General Abdul Rashid Dostum.

Sources quoted by the Pakistan-based Islamic Afghan Press, or AIP, said the Taliban had captured at least 80 opposition soldiers in the fighting, in which at least six Taliban and 11 opposition fighters were reported to have been killed.

AIP quoted Mullah Abdul Jalil, the Taliban's Kandahar-based acting deputy foreign minister, as saying a pro-Taliban uprising had taken place in the town of Ghorband, demoralizing the defenders of Jabal-os-Siraj, 30 kilometers to the east.

The loss of Jabal-os-Siraj and Gulbahar, both bastions of Masood, is a major setback for the anti-Taliban alliance that has been trying to recapture Kabul since it fell in September.

The Taliban achieved their latest advance a week after capturing the Soviet-built military airbase at Bagram and the nearby town of Charikar, about 50 kilometers north of Kabul.

Taliban forces are now back where they were soon after driving out Masood's forces and the Tajik-dominated government on Sept. 27.