U.S. jets press attacks on Taliban positions near front lines

Monday, October 22, 2001

Associated Press WriterBAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. jets pounded Taliban positions Monday near front lines outside the Afghan capital and a key northern city, the Taliban said. The attacks appeared aimed at helping Afghan opposition forces advance on major cities.

In Islamabad, Pakistan, Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef claimed U.S. and British jets attacked a hospital in the western Afghan city of Herat, killing more than 100 people. The report could not be independently confirmed. Britain denied its planes took part in any raid against Herat.

Zaeef also repeated Taliban claims -- denied by the Pentagon -- that Afghan fighters had shot down a U.S. helicopter in southwestern Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a refugee crisis was building at Pakistan's sealed border with Afghanistan. An Afghan man died of wounds suffered when border guards opened fire to force back up to 15,000 trapped Afghan civilians pushing and pleading for entry.

As the bombing campaign went into its third week, the strikes near front lines suggested the start of a more aggressive American campaign on behalf of northern-based opposition forces facing the fundamentalist Taliban regime.

But it was unclear whether the poorly armed and poorly trained opposition forces would be able to make significant gains against either the capital Kabul or the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif -- something they have been unable to accomplish since the air campaign began Oct 7.

A northern alliance intelligence officer, Motavar, complained that the attacks were not over a wide enough area. "We are satisfied, but we would like a broader bombardment over a larger area," said Motavar, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

"This is very important for us, because they are helping us finish off terrorism," said Haji Gul Rahman, a deputy brigade commander at Bagram north of Kabul.

In the capital, the Taliban's official Bakhtar news agency reported heavy bombing Monday at positions 30 miles to the north.

Bombing in the same area Sunday marked the most substantial U.S. strikes to date against Taliban positions defending Kabul from the northern alliance forces, stalled for years 12 to 25 miles north of the city.

Bedraggled opposition fighters watched, excited, as smoke and dust billowed up.

"We are hoping this will be a big help for the future of our forces," said Waisuddin Salik, an opposition spokesman. However, there was no report of any opposition advances.

Rahman said there were casualties among the Taliban, but he couldn't say how many.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States was interested in seeing rebel forces take Mazar-e-Sharif, but was still continuing discussion about whether a rebel march into Kabul would be "the best thing."

The United States and Britain have been reluctant to help the alliance seize Kabul until a broad-based government is in place to replace the Taliban.

There are widespread doubts about the ability of opposition forces -- a coalition mostly of minority ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks -- to govern. Chaos and infighting marked their four years in power in the 1990s. The fighting between rival groups now part of the alliance destroyed large sections of Kabul and killed an estimated 50,000 people, most of them civilians.

Since the U.S.-led air campaign began, U.S. attacks against Taliban front line positions previously had been concentrated farther to the north -- outside Mazar-e-Sharif.

Taking control of Mazar-e-Sharif would let the opposition control key supply lines for arms from neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

U.S. jets mounted fierce attacks throughout the night around the city, devastating two heavily fortified bases that had been guarding the southern approach, said Khan, the opposition commander. The U.S. attacks damaged tanks and artillery sites and destroyed an ammunition depot, Khan said.

"We are happy because these two bases were major fortifications. And now we are optimistic about launching a successful attack," the commander said.

Still, as in the front near Kabul, there were no claims Monday of significant opposition advances around Mazar-e-Sharif, where opposition and Taliban forces have been stuck in a seesaw battle for days.

Monday saw a break in U.S. attacks on Taliban sites in the Afghan capital. Skies over Kabul were quiet through the night and into the day.

The lull followed a U.S. air raid Sunday that shattered two homes in the city's northern Khair Khana district -- killing at 13 civilians, including three women and four boys ages 8 to 13.

The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, expressed condolences to those who had lost loved ones in the bombardment.

"We are not afraid of death because martyrdom is a great gift of God," Omar said in a statement distributed in Kabul. "Every man has to die one day, but we pray that we should die a martyr."

A Taliban spokesman, Abdul Hanan Himat, said bombing raids have destroyed only 10 percent of the Taliban's military capability, according to the Taliban news agency.

President Bush ordered the attacks after the Taliban repeatedly refused demands to surrender Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in last month's terror attacks in the United States, and his lieutenants.

Afghanistan's neighbors have closed its borders to Afghan civilians fleeing the U.S.-led attacks.

Stranded, up to 15,000 Afghans are camped out in a no man's land between the Afghan and Pakistan borders at the Chaman crossing.

Pakistan officials said both Pakistani and Taliban border guards opened fire Sunday to quell a stone-throwing protest by hundreds of the refugees demanding entry. Doctors at Chaman said Monday a 23-year-old Afghan died of a bullet wound. Another bullet injured a 13-year-old Afghan boy.

Pakistan border guards insist they were firing into the air only.

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