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US Planes Continue Heavy Strikes; Opposition Moves on Mazar-e-Sharif - 2001-11-08

U.S. warplanes carried out heavy strikes Thursday against Taleban positions near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and to the north of the capital, Kabul. The opposition Northern Alliance says it is advancing on Mazar-e-Sharif, but the Taleban denies the claim.

U.S. bombers pounded Taleban positions near Mazar-e-Sharif, as the Northern Alliance claimed to have advanced within eight kilometers of the city's airport and 30 kilometers south of the city center.

The Taleban are reported to have sent hundreds of reinforcements to the area and say they have pushed back Northern Alliance troops from several points south of the city that the opposition forces had taken earlier in the week. Neither side's claims has been independently verified.

Pentagon officials say they are focusing a majority of their air strikes on Taleban positions around Mazar-e-Sharif, which straddles land routes to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as well as the main road south to Kabul.

Air strikes were also reported against targets north of Kabul, and in the southern Taleban stronghold of Kandahar. The Pentagon also says U.S. planes carried out 27 bombing raids against Taleban positions near the western city of Herat.

Despite the intense bombing campaign, aid officials say food and relief supplies are continuing to flow into Afghanistan. A spokeswoman for the U.N.'s World Food Program in Islamabad, Lesley Davies, has said aid goals are close to being met.

"Within the first six days of November, WFP has been able to send more than 15,000 tons of food into Afghanistan. We are more than hopeful every day that we can reach our target of bringing in the targeted 52,000 tons of food per month into the country," she said.

WFP officials also say that with winter approaching, heavy snows could cut land routes, making it necessary for the agency to begin food-aid drops in northern Afghanistan.

Reports from Pakistan's tribal areas which border Afghanistan say more than 15,000 Pakistanis crossed the border into Afghanistan to join the Taleban on Thursday. Religious leaders in the region say as many as 6,000 Pakistani's have crossed into Afghanistan in recent weeks despite the border being officially closed and a ban on any Pakistani's crossing into Afghanistan.

A spokesman for Pakistan's foreign ministry on Thursday denied that any significant numbers of people had crossed into Afghanistan.

Meanwhile the Afghan Islamic Press which has close ties to Taleban authorities says Taleban intelligence officials have arrested at least 15 Afghans on charges of spying for the United States. The report says four of the 15, including a former army colonel, have been found guilty and face an automatic death penalty.