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U.S. jets target Afghan cities, helicopters attack near Kabul

Monday, November 5, 2001

Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- B-52s hammered away at Taliban positions outside a town near the northern border with Tajikistan and along the Kabul front Monday in hopes of helping the opposition gain ground before the advent of winter.

Taliban diplomats in Islamabad, Pakistan, also reported American air attacks Monday in the northern provinces of Samangan and Balkh against positions defending the Taliban-held city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Opposition and Taliban forces were fighting in the area of Mazar-e-Sharif on Monday, both sides said. But an opposition offensive launched there a day earlier was reported faltering hours after it began.

B-52 bombers struck at three separate sites about 30 miles northeast of Taloqan, near the Tajik border. Also, U.S. jets pounded Taliban positions to the east of the town, Mohammed Abil, a spokesman for the opposition northern alliance, said in a telephone interview.

Taloqan served as the opposition capital until Taliban troops overran it in September 2000, a major setback for the northern alliance. The alliance is seeking to reclaim the town, but has not been able to make any major advances despite the U.S. bombing campaign, now in its fifth week.

Two B-52s dropped a total of nearly 20 bombs Monday morning on a Taliban base at Estarghech -- part of Taliban defenses north of Kabul. Huge clouds of black smoke rose after the raid.

Two loud explosions were heard on the outskirts of Kabul around 5 a.m., while artillery and heavy machine gun fire reverberated from Taliban posts in the hills surrounding the Afghan capital. Several hundred rebels paraded near the front line about 25 miles north of the city, chanting "God is great" as U.S. bombs exploded on Taliban positions across the plain.

The Americans also carried out strikes in the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar after a four-day lull, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.

The agency, which is based in Pakistan, also reported that U.S. helicopter gunships attacked Taliban positions near Kabul. The report could not be confirmed, and the United States has not acknowledged using helicopter gunships so far in the campaign.

The Taliban-controlled Bakhtar News Agency claimed bombs killed 10 people and injured 15 others in a village outside Mazar-e-Sharif. Five people died and seven were wounded in a raid near Kandahar, it said.

The reports could not be independently confirmed. The Pentagon has repeatedly dismissed the Taliban's claims of widespread civilian casualties as lies.

President Bush ordered the airstrikes Oct. 7 after the Taliban repeatedly refused to surrender Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf -- a key ally in the U.S.-led campaign -- will meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London on Thursday, Blair's office said. The meeting will come a day after Blair flies by supersonic Concorde to Washington for talks with Bush.

Blair has been playing a leading diplomatic role in maintaining international support for the campaign against terror.

On Sunday, an attack by anti-Taliban forces outside Mazar-e-Sharif was reported faltering only hours after it was launched, raising questions about the ability of the opposition to exploit U.S. airstrikes without the assistance of American ground troops.

Mazar-e-Sharif was lost by the rebels to the Taliban in 1998. Retaking it would open a major supply route for the northern alliance from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In Islamabad, Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said the U.S. bombing had driven thousands of people from their homes. He said the situation had been made worse because Pakistan will not allow refugees into its territory. He called on the United Nations "help the people of Afghanistan inside Afghan territory."

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan commits itself to cooperating with the United Nations operation in this respect to prevent any further problems," Zaeef said.

The United Nations has been reluctant to operate inside Afghanistan because of security concerns and has been trying to persuade Pakistan to open its borders to more refugees who could be cared for on Pakistani soil. U.N. officials have also complained of Taliban fighters harassing aid workers and looting supplies. Zaeef said the only threat to U.N. operations in Afghanistan was American bombs.

To aid the opposition alliance, more U.S. special forces have entered Afghanistan in the last few days, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

U.S. military planners are concerned that opposition forces, who have promised a major offensive, will get bogged down with the onset of winter in the weeks ahead. Bad weather will soon make roads impassable, obstructing the resupply of front-line troops.

Bad weather is believed to have caused the crash Friday night of a U.S. helicopter inside Afghanistan on a mission to rescue a sick soldier. The helicopter was identified as an MH-53, probably an Air Force "Pave Low" special forces troop carrier.

Four crew members aboard the downed craft were injured, none critically, and were taken out by a second helicopter on the mission. The ill soldier was rescued Saturday.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a tour of front-line states in the war against terrorism, sought to dispel fears that the air campaign was failing to crack the Taliban's grip on Afghanistan.

In Pakistan on Sunday, Rumsfeld said the Taliban are no longer "functioning as a government" and were "not making major military moves."

On Monday, Rumsfeld was in India, where he said the military operation in Afghanistan was becoming more effective every day and would not take years to complete.

U.S. officials, however, have said the campaign against terrorism is global and could last well after the eventual end of fighting in Afghanistan.


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