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U.S. bombing presses on, though at lower intensity
Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. warplanes struck positions near the Taliban's two principal remaining strongholds -- Kandahar in the south and Kunduz in the north -- on Friday, the first day of Ramadan. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said U.S. special forces have been engaged in ground combat.
The latest bombardment came despite earlier calls from some Muslim nations -- including key ally Pakistan -- for restraint during Islam's holy month.
Pakistan noted the airstrikes were much less intense than in recent days and weeks.
"The bombing has been reduced," said Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan, adding that U.S.-led military operations would continue until aims were achieved.
Hardline Islamic groups staged small pro-Taliban rallies in major Pakistani cities on Friday, criticizing President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for supporting the United States in the war. Only 800 to 900 protesters showed up in the capital, Islamabad.
Even before Ramadan began, U.S. planners had signaled a change in tactics following the rout of the Taliban in much of the country over the past week. American commanders have said that raids will now be more tightly targeted, aimed at Osama bin Laden and the top Taliban leadership.
U.S. special forces have been involved in ground combat in Afghanistan, but no American troops have been killed, Rumsfeld told reporters Friday while en route to the Naval Training Center in Great Lakes, Ill.
"They are armed and they're participating," the Pentagon chief said. "They have gone into places and met resistance and dealt with it," Rumsfeld said. He declined to reveal specifically how many forces were involved, only saying, "We have hundreds."
Rumsfeld also said high-level Taliban leaders have been captured by opposition Afghan forces and that American officials were planning to interrogate them.
The Taliban, meanwhile, warned not to count them out yet.
A spokesman for Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was asked in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. if the Taliban were ready to accept that their rule of Afghanistan was over.
"No, we cannot think of it," the spokesman, Mohammed Taher Agha, replied. "Because still our forces are in good position -- we don't see any problem," he said.
He also denied Pentagon reports this week that some senior Taliban figures had been killed in U.S. bombardment, calling them "baseless."
Anti-Taliban forces have been besieging Kandahar, the Taliban's home base, but eyewitnesses and even an anti-Taliban leader said the militia's troops still appeared to have a firm grip on the southern Afghan city.
"The Taliban still have a strong hold on Kandahar. They are digging in," said a spokesman for Pashtun tribal leaders organized as an anti-Taliban force, who requested anonymity. Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, and served as the backbone of the Taliban's harsh five-year regime.
The spokesman estimated that 70 percent of Taliban commanders have chosen to follow Omar's call to keep fighting, while 30 percent don't want to fight.
In other developments:
-- British troops arrived at the Bagram airfield, north of Kabul, on what the Ministry of Defense said was a mission to prepare the facility for use in a future humanitarian mission.
-- France sent its first contingent of soldiers to northern Afghanistan on Friday as part of an international effort to help secure the area for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
-- Bin Laden's al-Qaida network had a formula for making ricin, one of the deadliest known poisons, The Times of London newspaper reported Friday. The Times said it found instructions for making the biological chemical ricin -- an untraceable poison that is twice as deadly as cobra venom -- in an al-Qaida safehouse in Kabul.
--Two young American women from a group of eight international aid workers arrested more than three months ago for preaching Christianity in Afghanistan gave their first public account Friday of their ordeal. The group was rescued by anti-Taliban troops in southern Afghanistan a day earlier and flown to safety by U.S. special forces.
-- Five British Muslims have been killed along with scores of other foreign volunteers fighting for the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, officials of Islamic militant groups said Friday in Islamabad.
President Bush launched airstrikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 7 after the Taliban refused to surrender bin Laden, wanted in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
U.S. planes bombed Kandahar again overnight, continuing a pattern of relentless strikes on the city and its environs. The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press said the Taliban's foreign ministry was wrecked, along with a mosque located in the eastern part of the city.
It claimed at least 11 civilians were killed, but that could not be independently confirmed.
A delegation of tribal leaders will go to Kandahar on Sunday to try to persuade Omar to give up, the spokesman told The Associated Press in the Pakistani frontier city of Quetta. If they fail, or if the Taliban imprison the delegation, then ethnic Pashtun fighters in the area will be likely to take up arms against the Taliban, he said.
Refugees arriving in Pakistan said Taliban troops still appeared in control of the city and the airport. Fazal Karim, 73, who crossed the Pakistani border on Friday, said that on his way out of Kandahar, Taliban troops stopped his taxi to stress that point.
"Look at this airport. Be witness that this airport belongs to us," Karim quoted them as saying.
Other arriving refugees said some people were fleeing Kandahar, fearful of a greater concentration of U.S. bombing or the arrival of anti-Taliban troops. They said the Taliban had been fortifying defensive positions and patrolling day and night.
Pakistan strengthened its border defenses closest to Kandahar with tanks and extra troops, worried that unrest -- and bin Laden supporters -- could spill across the frontier.
At Kunduz in the north, the anti-Taliban northern alliance were laying siege to the city, backed by U.S. airstrikes. There, too, though, Taliban control appeared to be holding.
The defenders include an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 foreigners loyal to bin Laden -- who are much less likely than Afghan Taliban to simply negotiate a surrender or slip away, as the bulk of Taliban forces did in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and in Kabul.
In the afternoon, U.S. warplanes again hit Taliban positions outside Kunduz. Northern alliance officials said there had been no breakthrough in negotiations for the city's surrender.
Near the city of Herat, by the Iranian border, Taliban forces vacated an air base, the Afghan Islamic Press reported. It was not immediately known whether anti-Taliban forces had taken over the base, the largest in western Afghanistan.