Opposition troops closing in on Mazar-e-Sharif

Anti-Taliban forces in northern Afghanistan closing in on Mzar-e-Sharif

Opposition forces in northern Afghanistan appeared to be closing in on the strategic city of Mazar-e-Sharif Wednesday, with reports of smaller centres near the city being taken from Taliban forces.

A Northern Alliance spokesman says opposition troops have taken control of Shol Ghar, 50 kilometres from Mazar-e-Sharif, but the Taliban has denied it's lost Shol Ghar. The Taliban says it will move 500 new fighters to the area by the end of the week.

The battle for Mazar-e-Sharif is seen as one of the most important elements of the campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan, launched in response to the attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11.

The Taliban captured Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998. Losing it would be a serious blow as it would open up supply routes to opposition forces and perhaps provide an airstrip in Afghanistan for U.S. planes and helicopters.

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair stood side by side at a news conference in Washington Wednesday, both men pledging victory in the war against terrorism.

Blair flew to Washington on the Concorde.

In their talks before the news conference, Blair and Bush discussed the situation in the Middle East as well as the war in Afghanistan. "We'll bring al-Qaida to justice, peace or no peace in the Middle East," Bush told reporters.

U.S. planes continued heavy bombing Wednesday, one month after the air campaign began on Oct. 7. Warplanes struck targets behind Taliban positions near Kabul.

Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that Northern Alliance fighters are making progress against Taliban strongholds near Mazar-e-Sharif. Pace said opposition fighters on horseback are attacking Taliban tanks.

Northern Alliance spokesman Ashraf Nadeem told Associated Press 500 Taliban soldiers have defected to the opposition side. The Taliban promptly denied Nadeem's report.

Italy announced it will supply 2,700 soldiers, sailors and air crew to the campaign. That will include the aircraft carrier Garibaldi as well as fighter jets and frigates. This comes on the heels of an announcement that Germany will provide the coalition with 3,900 troops.