Afghan Rebels Advance on Capital

KABUL -- The Islamic Taliban militia advanced to the gates of Kabul on Wednesday in a major offensive against Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani's forces.

A Defense Ministry spokesman acknowledged the Taliban had captured the key town of Charasiyab in a lightning overnight assault, but said government troops would counterattack.

"This is a setback, but war has its fluctuations," the spokesman said. "We are preparing for a counteroffensive."

He said the Taliban had punched through a hole in government defenses created by a treacherous commander who had "sold his post" to the Islamic student militia and was now under arrest.

The spokesman said the Taliban had captured part of the Rishkor hills between Kabul and Charasiyab, just 20 kilometers south of the city, but not an important army base there.

He denied government forces had lost ground to the Taliban on the front lines at Paghman, 15 kilometers northwest of Kabul, or at Arghandi, 15 kilometers to the southwest.

The Taliban first captured Charasiyab from the anti-Rabbani Hezb-i-Islami faction in February, but were driven back by Rabbani's top military commander Ahmad Shah Masood in March.

The latest Taliban offensive was a blow to efforts by UN envoy Mahmoud Mestiri to arrange a temporary cease-fire to bring warring Afghan factions to the negotiating table.

Fighting subsided into intermittent artillery and machine-gun fire during the day and most front lines were relatively quiet.

The atmosphere in Kabul itself was calm. Streets were busy, shops and markets were open and there was no sign of panic.

The Taliban launched their long-awaited attack on Tuesday evening from the town of Mohammed Agha, 45 kilometers south of Kabul in Logar province, government sources said.

Artillery fire boomed from the hills around the capital during the night as pro-Rabbani fighters tried to halt the offensive. At least one rocket landed in the city's southwestern Taimani district, killing 10 people, residents said.

The Defense Ministry spokesman said two government fighters had been killed and five wounded. The Taliban had taken no prisoners, but had captured two tanks, two BM-12 multiple-barrelled rocket launchers and four trucks, he said.

Exhausted pro-government fighters with tanks and armored personnel carriers lined the main road that runs from Kabul's southern suburbs to Charasiyab on Wednesday morning.

"I was returning to my unit on the Mohammed Agha front today, when I discovered that all my comrades had been killed or captured," said one fighter on the road. "I'm angry and upset, but we will fight to defend Kabul."

The Taliban, which emerged from obscurity a year ago to capture the southern city of Kandahar, seized the western city of Herat from pro-government forces on Sept. 5.

The movement found its first recruits among Afghan refugee students at Islamic schools in Pakistan, though the Pakistani government denies Kabul's charges that it supports the group.

Taliban leaders have vowed to install a purist Islamic state after sweeping away the mujahedin guerrilla factions fighting each other since the communist government fell in April 1992.