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Cheering refugees return after Taliban flee

| Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2001

KHOJA GHAAR, Afghanistan - Trucks loaded with cheering refugees competed Monday for road space with jubilant opposition fighters being driven to their next battle after a series of victories against the Taliban in northeastern Afghanistan.

Combatants in camouflage fatigues buried comrades killed in Sunday's capture of Tekhar province. They placed the bodies under green-and-white opposition flags that billowed in the dust of the steppes, then rushed to join new battles.

''The United States has been fighting the terrorists since September 11. We have been fighting them for seven years,'' said Saed Ahmad, a tank commander.

''We have many martyred comrades and we want revenge,'' he said.

Ahmad also promised that the opposition would take the Afghan capital, Kabul, even though the United States and many of its anti-terrorism coalition partners want the fighters to stay out until an agreement is reached on forming a broad-based post-Taliban government.

''Whether the United States wants it or not, we will take Kabul,'' he said.

Ahmad showed off a handful of identification cards he said were taken from the corpses of Taliban-allied fighters.

Photo cards and political party membership cards identified them as Islamic militants from neighboring Pakistan or Kashmir who joined the fight to defend the Taliban regime.

Scowling and jeering opposition fighters shoved a Pakistani prisoner. Five other Taliban-allied Pakistanis were captured with him and killed themselves, the opposition fighters said.

Open-bed troop carriers hauled back battered booty scavenged from Taliban trenches - dented tin water boilers, rusty pipes, unidentifiable bits of trash. Fighters back at the bunkers grunted in approval at the loot.

The trenches dug into the rock-hard clay tops of the Qalatah hills high over northeastern Afghanistan's steppes had been a focal point of fighting until Taliban defenses broke under a two-day opposition offensive that followed more than a month of U.S. bombing.

Now, an enemy that had been within view on the opposing hills Sunday night was at least a five-hour drive away by fast car, Ahmad said. The anti-Taliban fighters were chasing the retreating forces into Kunduz province, north of Kabul. The northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif fell to opposition forces on Friday, and the capture of Kunduz would clear the way for a full-force attack on the Afghan capital from the north.

''We will capture Kunduz tonight, and I'll be home in Mazar-e-Sharif by tomorrow,'' commander Jan Mohammed said, grinning.

Troop trucks honked at the loads of refugees on the road and the people cheered in response.

Afghan women bounced home in the back of a pickup truck, standing upright in their all-covering white burqas and clinging to the cab roof and each other for support. Women in these rural areas generally cover themselves fully, even though they are not under control of the Taliban which mandates such dress.

One newly returned refugee, Habib Allah, lived for a year in a tiny open-sided tent of ripped cloth after the Taliban took Khoja Ghaar. Within hours of its fall Sunday, Allah set out on donkey, four little nephews in rubber rain boots walking and riding with him.

''We will be home for Ramadan,'' the farmer said, smiling as he grazed his donkeys in a grove.

Ramadan is the Islamic holy month, drawing communities like Khoja Ghaar together in the rituals of prayer and daylong fasting.

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