U.S.-allied Afghan rebels say they now control much of northern Afghanistan — claiming to have extended their territory in 48 hours from a single province in the far northeast to all or most of eight provinces.
As they worked to secure their conquest of Mazar-e-Sharif and surrounding areas, the Northern Alliance claimed today to have captured another city in northern Afghanistan — Taloqan, former capital of Northern Alliance territory — and said some former Taliban forces switched sides during the battle. However, a Taliban official at one point denied it had lost the city, according to The Associated Press.
In another claim that could not be independently confirmed, the Northern Alliance told ABCNEWS correspondent Sebastian Junger that the population of Bamiyan, near the former site of giant ancient Buddha statues carved into the landscape, rebelled against the Taliban and seized control of the town. The Taliban destroyed the historic Buddha statues months ago despite international outrage.
Northern Alliance officials said their troops have pushed west from Mazar-e-Sharif, and predicted capturing the key western city of Herat as soon as Monday. The officials said troops also pushed out in other directions — to the east extending south from the Tajikistan border, where they claim to have taken several cities and provinces; to the north, which, if they consolidate their control, would allow an overland supply route to be opened between Uzbekistan and Mazar-e-Sharif; and even to the south. Furthermore, Northern Alliance officials say they are close to being able to capture national Afghan capital of Kabul.
Warnings on Kabul
For weeks, several thousand Northern Alliance fighters have been saying they'd soon advance on Kabul. But President Bush on Saturday warned them against grabbing the capital, saying that it should not be done before more planning on a post-Taliban government in Afghanistan, with power to be shared between Northern Alliance members and other interests in the country.
"We will encourage our friends to head south across the Shamali Plains but not into the city of Kabul itself," Bush said. "We believe we can accomplish our military missions by that strategy."
President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, on hand with Bush at a press conference, agreed with Bush's assessment, saying, "I think if the Northern Alliance enters Kabul we will see the same kind of atrocities" that destabilized the region in the past.
Northern Alliance foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah said today there's no 'set plan' to take the Afghan capital. However, Abdullah said opposition forces would continue to push towards Kabul in order to allow thousands of Afghans to go home.
"There are thousands of internally displaced people for over two and a half years now," Abdullah said. "They have been herded under the tents during the harsh winter and hot summer."
With the support of an international coalition, the United States has led bombing attacks within Afghanistan against the Taliban, which has refused to turn over Osama bin Laden or members of his al Qaeda network, suspected in terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 in the United States that killed more than 4,500 people.
The U.S. attacks have most prominently featured daily air strikes, but ground forces also are said to have conducted operations in the country. And now, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has confirmed to the BBC that British soldiers are in Afghanistan too, providing advice and assistance to the Northern Alliance.
Bush Bids for More World Support
As the Northern Alliance claimed victories and the United States kept up its bombing attacks in Afghanistan, President Bush today again reminded world leaders gathered in New York that the Sept. 11 attacks hit many nations.
A ceremony at the World Trade Center rubble marking the two-month anniversary of the terror attacks featured a board with the flags of the United Nations and more than 80 countries whose citizens died there.
After touring the Trade Center wreckage and pausing in silent prayer, the president and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan paused to write messages on the board next to their respective flags. Bush signed his name and wrote, "Good will triumph over evil. May God bless you all."
On Saturday, while appealing for support for U.S.-led military actions before nearly 50 world leaders gathered at the U.N. General Assembly, Bush expressed gratitude for international condolences over the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The memorials and vigils around the world will not be forgotten, but the time for sympathy has now passed," Bush said. "The time for action has now arrived."
Bush reminded the leaders of the attacks' tolls on many nations, and said all civilized nations must work together to defeat terrorism.
"Every nation has a stake in this cause," Bush said. "As we meet, the terrorists are planning more murder, perhaps in my country or perhaps in yours.
The annual U.N. session originally was scheduled to begin Sept. 24, but was postponed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell also will engage in diplomacy at the U.N. on Monday, when he talks with foreign ministers of the so-called "six plus two" group — countries bordering on Afghanistan, plus Russia and the United States — in an attempt to shape a broad-based coalition that could rule Afghanistan if the country's ruling Taliban is defeated by the U.S. military campaign.
But keeping any current coalition intact may be easier said than done. While some Middle Eastern allies of the United States have called for Bush to lead Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Bush does not have plans to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the U.N. gathering. Instead, Arafat met today with Powell.
However, Bush pointedly rewarded Pakistan and its president, Musharraf, who has been a vital U.S. ally during the U.S. airstrikes despite considerable political risks. Standing with Musharraf at a press conference, Bush said he had authorized the lifting of U.S. sanctions against Pakistan, debt relief and $1 billion in U.S. aid.
"Pakistan's efforts against terror are benefiting the entire world and linking Pakistan more closely with the world," Bush said. "The United States wants to help build these linkages."
Paper: Bin Laden Claims Nukes
Bush's coalition-building followed quotes by indicted terror mastermind Osama bin Laden was in an English-language Pakistani newspaper, where he said his al Qaeda organization has nuclear and chemical weapons and would use them if the United States used similar weapons first.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told ABCNEWS that he was not discounting the legitimacy of the interview. And U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice said today that "while there's no credible evidence specifically [bin Laden] has nuclear weapons," the U.S. doesn't know for sure.
"We know that he has been trying very hard to get them," she said on ABCNEWS' This Week. "While there's no credible evidence specifically of him having nuclear weapons, we're taking the threat very seriously."
Bush also would not say whether or not the United States believed bin Laden's claim, but said of it Saturday: "All the more reason for us to pursue him diligently and get him, and that is what we are going to do."
Northern Alliance Takes Mazar-e-Sharif
Things appeared to be going well this weekend in Afghanistan. Northern Alliance rebels said Friday they broke Taliban defenses and entered the strategically important city of Mazar-e-Sharif. On Saturday, the Taliban confirmed that it had left the city.
In Washington, a Pentagon official expressed worry that the city fell so quickly, saying he feared the Taliban mounted a "strategic retreat" to reposition for further, sustained attacks — as the Taliban claimed it did.
"The Northern Alliance has effective control of Mazar-e-Sharif at this moment," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said today on Fox News Sunday. "There are pockets of resistance within the city that continue. In some cases they're al Qaeda, in some cases they're Taliban, in some cases they're people from other countries that have come in to support Taliban."
The U.S. State Department said Saturday that Uzbek and United Nations officials would go today to Termez, an Uzbek city on the border with Afghanistan, to begin planning the transport of humanitarian aid overland into Afghanistan. In a "media note," the department said: "The fact that this process can now get under way is a direct result of the changing security situation on the Afghan border" after "significant inroads" made by opposition forces.
Mazar-e-Sharif is crucial to control of supply lines throughout much of northern and western Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance mostly operates.
In other developments:
Television and movie executives met with the president's senior adviser, Carl Rove, and other White House officials today at a closed-door session in Los Angeles. The entertainment industry was likely asked to help the nation by bolstering the spirit of America. Some feel that can be accomplished if Hollywood turns-out more feel-good and less violent material. Click here for the full story.
Radio France Internationationale says one of its journalists in Afghanistan was killed in an ambush today after leaving Northern Alliance military headquarters near the Tajikistan border. Johanne Sutton is believed to be the first foreign journalist killed in the country since U.S.-led strikes on targets in Afghanistan began last month, the Associated Press reported.
Military officials Saturday declared dead a U.S. sailor who apparently fell from a warship into the Arabian Sea. In a statement, the Defense Department said: "Machinist's Mate Fireman Apprentice Bryant L. Davis, 20, of Chicago, Ill. has been declared deceased after falling overboard from the USS Kitty Hawk on Nov. 7. Search and rescue efforts continued for more than two days before being halted on Friday. The USS Kitty Hawk is currently participating in Operation Enduring Freedom."
The latest numbers of victims from the attacks on the World Trade Center, according to New York City officials, are 3,748 missing and 556 identified dead. In addition, officials say 233 people are dead or missing at other Sept. 11 terrorism sites, for a total of 4,537 presumed dead in the attacks.