Taliban troop concentrations in northern Afghanistan became a target of American air strikes for the first time yesterday in what seemed to be a shift in strategy towards the Northern Alliance, paving the way for the opposition fighters to launch a fierce assault on the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Last night Alliance forces seemed to be closing inon the town, with thousands of troops amassing just a couple miles south of the city. The city is the most fiercely contested place in Afghanistan in recent years and the site of some of the worst massacres in the Afghan civil war.Its fall would mark a watershed in the seven-year-old conflict and could see the Taliban driven out of northern Afghanistan.
A few days ago, Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil met with CIA officials in a top secret visitto Islamabad. According to senior sources in Pakistan, the Taliban Foreign Minister-who is regarded as amoderate—offered a last-minute deal to hand over Osama bin Laden during a secret visit to Islamabad. There were alsoindications yesterday he had met CIA agents, representatives of the former king of Afghanistan, Zafar Shah, touted asa possible figurehead of any post-Taleban administration, and a representative of the opposition Northern Alliance.The foreign minister offered to hand over bin Laden for trial in a country other than the US–without asking to seeevidence implicating him in the September 11 terrorist attacks–in return for a halt to the bombing, according to asource close to Pakistan’s military leadership.
- Fariba Nawa, reporter for Agence France Presse in Islamabad.