Daylight raid brings panic in Kabul, strikes on Kandahar set off exodus of civilians
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – The first daylight raid on the Afghan capital in the 5-day-old U.S.-led air campaign sent shoppers scattering in panic Thursday, jumping on donkey carts and bicycles to flee heavy explosions. In the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, a hit on a munitions dump set off a series of deafening blasts – and an exodus of civilians toward the Pakistani border.
U.S. planes returned to the skies over Kabul late Thursday, and a huge fireball lit up the sky over the eastern part of the city in the direction of a training base of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network.
Huge detonations accompanied by a howling wind could also be heard Thursday evening from the Afghan side of the border in the Pakistani frontier town of Chaman, about 70 miles south of Kandahar.
One month after the terror attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Pakistani officials acknowledged for the first time that U.S. planes and personnel were on the ground as part of the American-led campaign against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and that the United States had been granted use of two key bases.
But the air campaign is so controversial in Muslim Pakistan that the government publicly denied there were any American military personnel in the country. Pakistani officials who confirmed the American presence were careful not to categorize them as military personnel.
Pakistan stressed that its territory would not be a staging ground for military strikes against neighboring Afghanistan. Assistance to the United States has stirred up an angry backlash against Gen. Pervez Musharraf from militant Muslim parties.
More than 15 U.S. military aircraft, including C-130 transport planes, arrived over the past two days at a Pakistani base at Jacobabad, 300 miles northeast of the port city of Karachi and about 150 miles from the Afghan border, said Pakistani officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said of the arrival of U.S. personnel, ”When the Americans enter Afghanistan, here will start the real war – not now.”
In London, the head of the British armed forces, Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, said U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan could last into next summer, unless the country’s ruling Islamic militia surrenders bin Laden.
”It could be a very short haul … (or) we must expect to go through the winter and into next summer at the very least,” Boyce said.
The Taliban claimed at least 115 people had been killed in overnight strikes late Wednesday and early Thursday, including 100 in a village near Jalalabad and 15 who died when a missile hit a mosque in that northeastern city.
No independent confirmation of the Taliban claims was possible.
The southern Afghan city of Kandahar, home base and birthplace of the Taliban, has been hammered repeatedly in the U.S. raids, and it took another pounding Thursday. Warplanes again targeted a compound near the airport where bin Laden followers had lived.
Also hit was a munitions dump outside a Taliban base, causing huge explosions that sent many Kandahar residents fleeing. ”People ran without looking back,” said Abdul Gharrar, arriving at Pakistan’s Chaman border crossing hours later.
”I had just finished with my prayers when I heard loud explosions and the ground moved beneath our feet,” said another refugee, Nematullah Ahmed, who runs a shop with his father. ”When we ran out there were planes overhead dropping bombs. There was dust and smoke everywhere. Everyone was scared and running in the streets – my father put us in a taxi and we left.”
The border remains closed to refugees, but many slip through on side roads or mountain tracks.
After four nights of bombing, people in Kabul had become accustomed to raids beginning after dark. Thursday’s daylight strike came at 5:30 p.m., the skies were clear and cloudless, and many people were out shopping for their evening meal.
Once the attack began, panicked civilians fled by any means of transport they could find – jumping into donkey-drawn carts, flagging down bicyclists to hop on the back, clambering into hand-drawn wagons used to haul goods.
About four hours later, U.S. planes struck again. A fireball was seen from the direction of Rishkore, an al-Qaida training base near Kabul. The camp has been empty for months, but buildings, training facilities and offices remain.
Detonations were also heard east of Kabul near a military academy and artillery batteries targeted the previous night.
Only a day after the U.N. World Food Program announced it was resuming road shipments of aid into Afghanistan, it hit a roadblock – in the form of the Taliban. A convoy of relief supplies from Pakistan to the western Afghan city Herat, near the Iranian border, was stopped by Taliban demanding a large ”road tax.”
”We refused,” spokesman Francesco Luna said. The standoff remained unresolved late Thursday.
In Afghanistan’s north, the alliance of opposition forces claimed Thursday they had taken the key central province of Gur after heavy fighting with Taliban forces during the night. Spokesman Mohammed Abil said fighting continued into the morning in several areas.
The claim could not be independently verified. Gur borders four provinces that the opposition considers crucial to efforts to unseat the Taliban.
In other developments:
– British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Thursday that Britain and the United States agree there are no immediate plans for a wider war outside of Afghanistan.
– An Air Force sergeant, Evander Earl Andrews, was killed in a heavy equipment accident in Qatar, becoming the first U.S. death in Operation Enduring Freedom, military officials said.
– Afghanistan’s former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, is working to hold a gathering of tribal leaders, or loya jirga, to select a new head of state in Kabul if a cease-fire is reached, a senior aide, Yusuf Nuristani, said.
– Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, in an interview with a Saudi magazine to be published Friday, said the war with America will not end with his death. ”My death will not end the war. The (Afghan) tribes along with the Taliban are ready for war … and they agreed to that,” Omar was quoted as saying.
– The FBI said it has received information there may be additional terrorist attacks inside the United States or abroad in the next several days but has no specifics on targets.
– At a Pentagon service marking the one-month anniversary of its targeting by terrorists, President Bush said those who helped sponsor the attack will have ”no place to run or hide or rest.”
– The head of U.S. immigration said 13 of the hijackers entered the country legally but officials can find no records of six others, leaving their identities in doubt.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kathy Gannon contributed to this dispatch from Islamabad, Pakistan.
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