B-52s pound Taliban headquarters
Associated Press WriterJABAL SARAJ, Afghanistan (AP) -- B-52 bombers pounded the front line north of Kabul on Friday in one of the strongest attacks yet, blasting a Taliban field headquarters. Opposition forces said the bombing appeared directed by U.S. forces on the ground.
Strong American attacks were also reported Friday against Taliban positions defending the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. One opposition official, Nadeem Ashraf, called the daylong attacks "relentless" despite overcast skies and heavy rains.
Along the Kabul front, elated opposition fighters and awed villagers on the opposition-held side estimated as many as 60 bombs fell by midday. Huge explosions sent plumes of smoke surging up from Taliban positions.
"There are too many to count!" 20-year-old opposition fighter Sham Sher Khan said. Taliban artillery gunners fired in vain at warplanes. They also trained some of their guns on opposition forces, drawing return fire.
On Friday afternoon, fighters counted six runs by B-52 bombers, with each dropping 25 bombs in rapid succession on suspected Taliban positions defending Kabul.
They appeared to be targeting positions both on the front line, including a Taliban-held village called Kharabogh, and deeper inside Taliban-held territory.
One huge bomb blasted the abandoned Qara Muheb village, which opposition forces said the Taliban used as a field command center.
"We could see B-52s, the ones with the four engines, drop many, many bombs that raised huge masses of smoke," opposition fighter Said Mirshah, 24, said.
An opposition spokesman in Parwan province, 35 miles north of Kabul, said Friday's assault was the heaviest in the area since the air campaign began Oct. 7.
The spokesman, Waisuddin Salik, said U.S. bombers also targeted positions along the old road from Kabul to the opposition-held Bagram air base, where 100 fresh recruits from Pakistan arrived recently to fight with the Taliban.
He said a preliminary opposition estimate showed that 13 Taliban tanks had been destroyed along with several types of guns including heavy machine guns and anti-aircraft weapons.
The report could not be independently confirmed, and Taliban spokesmen in Kabul were not available for comment.
"The bombardment was very effective," Salik said.
President Bush ordered airstrikes Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed about 4,500 people in the United States.
The attacks against both the Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif fronts showed increased U.S. support for the opposition northern alliance, which seeks to push through Taliban defenses before winter makes ground offensives more difficult.
Daylight Friday showed fresh snow on the peaks surrounding the front at the Shomali Plain north of Kabul.
Afghan opposition official Saeed Hussain Anwari said Friday that Americans were on the ground in opposition territory, and appeared to be directing the strikes on Taliban positions.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld confirmed Thursday that a small number of U.S. special forces were on the ground helping identify targets for U.S. warplanes. U.S. officials indicated the U.S. ground deployment was between 100 and 200 men and that more were on the way.
Heartened by a more robust American performance, Afghanistan's opposition forces have moved more troops and artillery to the front for a possible assault on Kabul, which the Taliban captured in 1996.
In Kabul, Muslim clerics expressed their anger and disappointment at the fact that Islamic nations have not rallied to the Taliban cause. Pakistan has granted the Americans use of airspace and selected bases, and Turkey offered to send special forces to train the northern alliance.
"Just because someone introduces himself as a Muslim and has the identity of a Muslim, and the passport of a Muslim country, like Turkey, don't be fooled," a Muslim cleric told the congregation at Kabul's Shad-e-Shamshera mosque. "You cannot say such person is Muslim."
The United Nations and others have expressed concern over a power vacuum if the opposition overruns capital before agreement can be reached on the political future of the country.
U.N. Afghanistan envoy Lahkdar Brahimi was due Friday in Iran for talks on the problem. Brahimi has called for a government that represents Afghanistan's range of ethnic groups. The Taliban are dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and the opposition is largely Uzbek and Tajik.
The United States had hoped to lure influential Pashtun leaders away from the Taliban -- possibly joining a grand council to be convened by former king Mohammad Zaher Shah to plan the country's future.
However, the United States drew closer to the northern alliance after mediation efforts with Pashtun leaders stalled.
Overnight, Taliban forces clashed with supporters of an influential Pashtun leader who had slipped back into the country to rally support for a council under the chairmanship of Zaher Shah.
The Taliban claimed tribal leader Hamid Karzai had escaped but 25 of his supporters were captured. Karzai's family in Pakistan confirmed the clash and said he was safe.
Last week, a similar mission to mount opposition to the Taliban among southern Afghan Pashtuns received a severe blow when former guerrilla leader Abdul Haq was captured and hanged near Kabul.
Both Haq and Karzai sought to win support for a conference of Afghan leaders under the chairmanship of Zaher Shah to set up a new government to replace the Taliban.