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Northern Alliance Claims Advances Toward Key Afghan Town - 2001-11-07

Anti-Taleban fighters in Northern Afghanistan say they are closing in on a key northern town, after intensified U.S. bombing of Taleban frontlines. U.S. warplanes also pounded Taleban positions near the Afghan capital, Kabul.

A spokesman for the opposition Northern Alliance said his troops have taken Sholgera district, south of Mazar-e-Sharif. He said some of the group's fighters are as close as 15 kilometers from the key city, which controls important supply lines.

His report could not be independently confirmed, though Taleban officials have conceded some gains by their foes.

Northern Alliance commanders say stepped-up bombing by U.S. bombers in recent days has softened the Taleban defenses in the area. U.S. forces also hit Taleban forces along another frontline near the capital Kabul. Witnesses report heavy explosions that sent up huge clouds of gray smoke near Taleban positions.

During a brief stop in Istanbul, Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf said the U.S.-led bombing should stop for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He said he would discuss this point with President Bush during their meeting at the United Nations later this week.

U.S. officials have said they do not plan to suspend operations, despite concerns that continued bombing during Ramadan could increase opposition among Muslims.

In Pakistan, Muslim religious groups are threatening a nationwide strike for this Friday. The government has increasingly warned that it will crack down on unruly demonstrators. But Foreign Ministry Spokesman Aziz Khan said he expects little disruption Friday. "Some agitators can not be allowed to indulge in disruptive activities and the government is taking measures against that. Apart from that, the situation is very normal, things are running normally," he said. "I do not see how anyone can draw an impression that there is a possibility of very large-scale demonstrations."

Sympathy for the Taleban is especially strong in Pakistan, especially among militant religious groups and Pashtuns, the ethnic group that makes up most of Afghanistan's ruling Taleban.