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Deserter Tells Taliban's Tale

Taliban fighters danced for joy when they heard hijacked planes had smashed into the World Trade Center, and boasted they would withstand any U.S. attack, a deserter from the Afghan ruling militia said on Saturday.

The 23-year-old fighter, who defected 10 days ago across the frontline north of Kabul to troops of the opposition Northern Alliance, said Taliban fighters believed Saudi-born fugitive Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attacks, and had vowed to stand and wait for U.S. strikes.

"After those attacks on the United States, the Taliban were so happy. They all said: 'You see, Osama has struck at America. If anybody comes here to attack us, we will defeat them'," he said, sitting in a room filled with alliance fighters.

Northern Fighters
Claim Success

Afghan opposition groups battling the ruling Taliban said on Saturday they were closing in on the provincial capital of the northern province of Samangan. Spokesman Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem said the Taliban were retreating and putting up little resistance.

"We have taken 100 Taliban fighters, including four commanders, as prisoners in the fighting. The Taliban have lost dozens of men while our fatalities are fewer," Nadeem said by satellite phone from Samangan province.

The Taliban and opposition forces have been engaged in sporadic battles along a series of frontlines in northern Afghanistan for several years with neither side making decisive gains.

There was no verification of the opposition report.

Meanwhile, as a U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition tightened around Afghanistan, the Taliban offered to release eight imprisoned foreign aid workers. The condition: The United States must halt its "massive propaganda campaign."

The Bush administration rejected the offer.

"The president has made clear from the beginning that the Taliban needs to release the aid workers and that it is time for action, not negotiation," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan.

The deserter, who gave his name as Khan Jan, is a member of the Tajik ethnic minority that has mainly been opposed to the Pashtun Taliban.

He said he had been forcibly conscripted by the Islamic militia four months ago at the start of the Taliban's late summer offensive.

He was giving one of the first accounts of conditions on the Taliban side of the front since hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon on September 11.

Although he spoke at an opposition Northern Alliance base, witin earshot of commanders who had helped him to escape, his account did not support the alliance position that morale in the Taliban trenches has begun crumbling.

"In the evening, when we were listening to the radio, we heard (about the strikes on) Voice of Shariat. And all my friends in the room, they became really happy, they were laughing when they heard it on the radio. They were saying, 'They f----d America!"' he said.

Some of the Taliban even expressed their joy by dancing steps of the Atan, a Pashtun traditional folk dance. The Taliban generally forbid dancing in public as un-Islamic.

Morale held up even after the U.S. vowed to retaliate, he said.

"After America said it would strike, (Taliban leader) Mullah (Mohammad) Omar went on the radio and said we should not be afraid if America will strike, or Russia. We will defend ourselves with all our forces. We will send our men to the borders and be prepared to defend ourselves against America," he said.

Anti-Aircraft Fire
Around Kabul

Taliban anti-aircraft guns fired Saturday at a high-flying aircraft as it flew over the capital. The origin and type of the plane were unknown.

The intense volley sent thousands of residents into the streets. People stared at the plane — visible overhead — as it continued its flight.

After a few minutes, the silver-colored, slow-moving plane flew away and the firing stopped. Kabul residents — numbed to gunfire and explosions after more than 20 years of conflict — went about their business, shopping and strolling under a cloudless sky.

Afghan gunners have fired anti-aircraft bursts in recent days in what Taliban authorities said were drills.

However, the intensity of the gunfire Saturday was much heavier, and the plane was clearly visible.

"They say they will stand and fight. Whether they can withstand the strikes or not only Allah knows. Mullah Omar said they would fight, and the people cannot contradict him."

Khan Jan said he had been working as a shopkeeper in the Taliban-held northern city of Kunduz four months ago, when two Taliban officials came into the store and conscripted him.

"I didn't have time to tell my family. They would have learned about it from the neighbours in the next shop," he said.

He said he was one of 70 conscripts from the town flown by plane to Kabul and sent to the front just north of the capital.

"We had no training at all," he said. "The Pakistanis and Arabs (fighting with thTaliban) are all trained. But us, they give us no training at all."

One week before he deserted, he sent the camp cook across the front with a message for the Northern Alliance commander on the other side. He then made contact by radio, and the commander sent someone to meet him on the morning of his escape.

He brought with him a light machine gun, his automatic rifle and a field radio.

"I am not the only one. Other people who do not want to be with the Taliban will come too," he said.

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