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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fighting Rages Near Afghan Capital

KABUL -- Afghanistan's Taliban movement battled ousted government forces north of Kabul on Thursday and held a protest in the capital against what it called foreign interference.

Its official radio said it had rolled back the forces of Ahmad Shah Masood, military chief of the government driven from Kabul by the Taliban last month, from positions close to the city and was advancing north.

On the ground the situation was more confused. A reporter in Charikar, 50 kilometers north of the capital said the two sides were fighting for control of a junction linking two roads to Kabul.

The airbase of Bagram is five kilometers east of the junction.

Hopes for a peaceful solution to the latest round of civil conflict were raised Wednesday when the Taliban opened talks with powerful northern Uzbek chief Abdul Rashid Dostum, the first known high-level contact between the two sides.

Earlier this week Dostum reached an agreement with Masood, and it was not clear Thursday whether this deal would bear fruit.

Taliban-held Radio Afghanistan said earlier its forces had retaken the village of Qarabagh and the intersection, scene of heavy fighting since Masood's forces swept south late last week.

"In continuation of its mopping up operations, the Islamic army cleared Qarabagh and Chaikal-Robat up to the Bagram intersection completely of the forces of evil and corruption," Taliban-controlled Radio Afghanistan said.

"The Islamic army is dominant in the area and is advancing," it said.

Reports from the front line indicate that after a lightning strike across the plains south of their Hindu Kush stronghold, Masood's forces have run up against stiff resistance less than an hour's drive north of Kabul.

The Taliban, Islamic purists from southern Afghanistan who swept to power in an offensive last month, appear to have rallied after a similarly dramatic retreat across the plains north of Kabul earlier this week.

Denying they were on the defensive, the fighters have reinforced defenses around the capital and shipped in hundreds of volunteers from outer regions.

In Kabul, the Taliban administration staged its first demonstration in the capital Thursday to protest against what it called foreign interference by India, Russia and Iran.

Hundreds of demonstrators, most of them civil servants, were joined by several thousand onlookers who followed the procession to the Iranian Embassy and UN political office in Kabul. The protest, the first in the capital since the Islamic movement took over the capital nearly three weeks ago, ended with demonstrators calling on the United Nations to recognize the Taliban government.

"Death to interventionists! Down with Iran and Russia!" chanted a Taliban preacher, standing on a car roof, through a megaphone.

The demonstration followed a protest in the southern city of Kandahar, headquarters of the Taliban, last Saturday, which made the same demands. A Pakistan-based Afghan news agency said 35,000 people took part in that demonstration.

All three countries recognize President Burhanuddin Rabbani's ousted government, and the Taliban -- born in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan two years ago -- have accused the three of giving covert or open support to Rabbani or to Dostum.

Kabul itself remained quiet but tense, as relief that an expected assault on the city had not materialized was tempered with foreboding about fighting beyond the hills overshadowing the northern fringe of the capital.

"We know that there is fighting going on out there, and we are used to it. But we are just praying that, God-willing, it does not return to Kabul," said one market vendor.

Wednesday's meeting between Dostum and the Taliban, apparently brokered by Pakistan and held in territory under Dostum's control, was due to continue Thursday on the proposed formation of a commission to decide the country's political future.