U.S. jets hit hard near Taliban front line, elating Afghanistan’s opposition forces
QALAI DASHT, Afghanistan (AP) – U.S. warplanes bombarded Taliban positions Sunday near a front line north of the capital, Kabul, marking what could be the start of a more aggressive campaign on behalf of opposition forces fighting the Islamic regime.
In Kabul, meanwhile, grieving neighbors pulled dust-covered bodies of seven civilians – three women and four children – from the ruins of two homes destroyed Sunday by a U.S. bomb. ”This pilot was like he was blind!” sobbed one neighbor.
Also Sunday, the British Broadcasting Corp. quoted an Afghan doctor as saying the 10-year-old son of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was killed during U.S.-led strikes. The boy died on the first night of bombing raids on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, said Dr. Abdul Barri.
Barri, who spoke to the BBC as he crossed the border into Pakistan, said that Omar’s uncle was hit in the same raid but was believed to still be alive and receiving treatment at the hospital at Kandahar.
In Pakistan, the U.N. refugee agency renewed appeals Sunday for Afghanistan’s neighbors to open their borders to the refugees – including up to 15,000 trapped on the ”no man’s land” near the Pakistani town of Chaman.
The attacks Sunday marked the closest and most intense U.S. strikes so far against Taliban positions defending Kabul from northern alliance forces, which have been stalled for years 12 to 25 miles north of the city.
U.S. jets streaked over the opposition-held Panjshir Valley, and opposition officials told an Associated Press reporter in the area that they appeared to strike Taliban positions about one mile behind the front line.
Several eyewitnesses, including journalists and residents, also reported Taliban positions bombed in the area.
”We are hoping this will be a big help for the future of our forces,” Waisuddin Salik, an opposition spokesman, said.
Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban forces, an alliance mostly of minority ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, have been urging the United States to provide close air support for their forces so they can advance on the capital.
However, the United States and Britain had been reluctant to help the northern alliance seize Kabul until a broad-based government had been formed to take over from the Taliban.
Opposition groups were widely discredited in Afghanistan because of the chaos and infighting that marked their four years in power. 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 Oct. 7, U.S. attacks against Taliban front line positions were mostly limited to strikes near the strategic northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
U.S. warplanes resumed attacks Sunday in that area, striking targets in the provinces of Balkh, which includes Mazar-e-Sharif, and Samangan to the east of the city, according to the Afghan Islamic Press.
Taliban spokesman Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi claimed Taliban forces drove back an opposition attack in the area despite the U.S. airstrikes.
Afghan officials also reported more attacks Sunday near the western city of Herat and Kandahar in the south.
In Kabul, U.S. jets struck at midmorning in the Khair Khana section of the city. One bomb crashed into a residential neighborhood, destroying two houses. An Associated Press reporter saw the bodies of seven dead at the scene and later at a city hospital. All were said to be related.
At a nearby hospital, Dr. Izetullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, wept as he pulled back bloodstained sheets to show the bodies of the four children – all boys, ages 8 to 13. Izetullah said 13 dead had been brought to the hospital.
”This pilot was like he was blind,” neighbor Haziz Ullah said. ”There are no military bases here – only innocent people.”
The neighborhood holds no known Taliban military sites, although a Taliban army garrison and other installations are several miles away.
Attending an economic summit in Shanghai, China, President Bush said the United States had been ”as careful as we possibly could” to avoid killing civilians.
Bush ordered the attacks after the Taliban repeatedly refused demands to surrender Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in last month’s terror attacks in the United States, and his lieutenants.
A senior administration official said Sunday that Bush signed an order after the Sept. 11 attacks directing the CIA to kill bin Laden and destroy his communications, security apparatus and infrastructure.
In Islamabad, the Taliban’s deputy ambassador to Pakistan, Suhail Shaheen, said the order constituted a ”terrorist act.”
Faced with unrelenting attacks, the Taliban’s Cabinet met at a secret location Sunday and appealed to fellow Islamic countries to donate humanitarian supplies and medicine to victims and survivors of the U.S.-led bombings.
The Taliban also announced plans to disperse air defense and other weapons to villages, presumably to allow them to defend themselves against attack and to protect the materiel from U.S. jets hunting for depots and troop concentrations.
With no letup in the air campaign, tens of thousands of Afghans are fleeing the cities. The U.N. refugee agency estimates that up to 15,000 of them are stranded on the Afghan side of the Pakistani border near Chaman because Pakistan will not open its frontier to refugees.
On Sunday, Pakistan border guards fired shots to drive back hundreds of stone-throwing Afghans pushing their way across the border. A 13-year-old boy was wounded.
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