Some 500 U.S. and allied troops are already on the ground in Afghanistan and assisting Northern Alliance forces, according to a statement from an official representative of the Taliban regime.

“According to our information, 500 Americans and [their] allies have reached opposition positions. These are professional soldiers who are technicians and experts in military training,” stated Qari Ahmadullah, a Taliban military information official.

Most of the allied troops in Afghanistan, Ahmadullah said, are operating “in Faizabad, in the center of the country.”

The remarks were carried by Italy’s Corriere Della Sera, one of Europe’s major news dailies, and were taken from a Taliban release to the Afghan Islamic press news agency.

The report of the Taliban statement preceded by some hours a press briefing by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, during which he verified that there are “a very modest number of ground troops in [Afghanistan]. …”

A spokesman for the Northern Alliance confirmed that the troops are present “to help coordinate air strikes” with “attacks by opposition forces of the Taliban,” according to Deutsche Welle, the official broadcasting service of the German government.

The statement from the Northern Alliance marks the first time that the presence of armed and uniformed U.S. troops has been acknowledged in the area controlled by the Northern Alliance – about 10 percent of Afghanistan.

The Northern Alliance is seeking to continue to strengthen coordination between its forces and the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition.

Speculation is growing among some observers that the U.S. soon may establish a military base inside Afghanistan.

Corriere Della Sera earlier reported speculation that the support base would be manned by some 2,900 troops assigned to coordinate and supply the anti-terrorist campaign in Afghanistan.

Despite continued air attacks and pledges of continued assistance from traditional U.S. allies in Western Europe, as well as promises of cooperation from Russia, the Taliban regime presents an image of absolute defiance.

In the face of an apparent ground war with the United States, the Taliban authorities not only claim to have captured Americans, but have rejected help from volunteers entering into Afghanistan from Pakistan.

The U.S. resolutely denies that any Americans have been captured by Taliban forces, and some speculate that the Taliban refused the offer of armed volunteers due to fear of infiltration from opposition groups.

While the Taliban gives the appearance of being ready to fight to the last, opposition forces are already preparing for a post-Taliban government.

According to reports, the former king of Afghanistan, 87-year-old Zahir Shah, has arrived in Pakistan at the request of various opposition groups and is ready to assist in the building of a new government.

During his reign from 1933 until his overthrow in 1973 by his more conservative cousin, Shah followed a domestic policy acknowledged to be progressive and pro-Western.

Other possible members of a post-Taliban government include Burhanuddin Rabbani, president of the government ousted from Kabul by the Taliban, commanders from the Northern Alliance, which has been fighting the Taliban for nearly a decade, and military, ethnic and spiritual leaders from the recently formed Southern Alliance.

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