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November 3, 2001
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Taleban suffer first defeat, lose key district

K J M Varma in Islamabad

In the first major defeat at the hands of opposition forces since the launch of American military operation in Afghanistan, the ruling Taleban on Saturday lost a key district near the town of Mazar-e-Sharif, but said they would not shy away from fighting the war even during Ramzan.

Continuing the offensive on Taleban targets, US forces launched strings of air strikes in and around the village of Starqash, 40 km from capital Kabul, as Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said hundreds of more special forces were ready to infiltrate into Afghanistan.

After weeks of fighting, the opposition forces captured large portions of Aq-Kupruk, 70 km south of Mazar-e-Sharif, after a three-hour battle during which 800 Taleban fighters changed sides, General Atiqullah Baryaalai of the Northern Alliance said.

There was no word from the militia on the opposition claims.

Fighting close to Mazar-e-Sharif had reached a stalemate for weeks. Pentagon officials in the US said that the fight for the city has been "difficult and tough" and that American ground forces were helping numerous anti-Taleban forces, including the Northern Alliance.

If the opposition forces gain control of Mazar-e-Sharif, the United States had indicated that it might set up an air base at a nearby air field.

With President George W Bush declaring that he would not stop the bombing during Ramzan, the militia challenged him, saying they were ready to fight during the fasting month and vowed to protect Laden.

"We see this war as a jihad. We have not asked for a halt to the fighting ... this is up to the United States," a Taliban official told Qatar's Al Jazeera TV network.

"Jihad is a religious duty and it does not violate (the tenets of) Ramzan," Mohammad Taieb al-Agha said, adding, "protecting Laden is a religious duty."

He said the Afghan people have expressed readiness to sacrifice themselves to defend bin Laden and they "will not capitulate to the US or any other infidel force."

PTI

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