U.S. jets pound targets around Kabul in heaviest attack against the Afghan capital
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – In the biggest attack so far against Kabul, U.S. jets pounded the Afghan capital Wednesday, and explosions thundered around a Taliban military academy, artillery units and suspected terrorist training camps. Buildings miles away shook with the fury of the attack.
With the United States claiming air supremacy in its campaign to root out Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, American jets roamed across the skies for more than two hours, seeking out targets on the fringes of this war-ruined city of 1 million.
U.S. aircraft returned to the skies over this city early Thursday pounding sites near the airport. In two sorties, jets fired at least 11 heavy-detonation projectiles. They lit up the night sky. Flames surged skyward. Taliban gunners returned fire with anti-aircraft weapons. Thick clouds of black smoke rose from the direction of the airport.
The private Afghan Islamic Press in Pakistan said U.S. jets and missiles also attacked the Taliban’s southern stronghold of Kandahar for the second time in a day and a Taliban military base at Shamshaad, about four miles from the Pakistani border.
A U.S. official in Washington, meanwhile, said two adult male relatives of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar were killed in bombing strikes Sunday on the leader’s home in Kandahar in the south of the country. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, also said a senior Taliban officer was reported killed in strikes near Mazar-e-Sharif in the north.
Before the latest bombardment began after sunset, the United Nations reported that Taliban loyalists have been beating up Afghans working with U.N.-affiliated aid agencies, apparently taking aim at one of the only Western symbols remaining in the country.
The barrage on Kabul on Wednesday night appeared to be the longest and biggest yet in the 4-day-old U.S.-led air campaign. Warplanes fired missiles in rapid succession while Taliban gunners unleashed furious, but futile barrages of anti-aircraft fire at the jets flying beyond their range. Taliban mobile air defense units cruised through the city, firing at the planes.
Powerful explosions could be heard around Kabul airport in the north of the city and to the west in the direction of Rishkore and Kargah – both areas where bin Laden is believed to have terrorist training camps.
Blinding flashes lit up the night sky toward the Taliban military academy and an area with artillery garrisons. Jets could be heard heading northward toward the front line between the Taliban and the opposition northern alliance.
Most of the attack took place after the 9 p.m. curfew, and it was impossible to determine the extent of damage. There were no reports from Taliban radio, which has been off the air for two days following attacks on communications towers.
Although there appeared to be no impacts in central Kabul, buildings shook and windows rattled in residential areas in the heart of the capital.
For many Afghans, the nightly air raids were becoming difficult to bear, even in a war-hardened country.
Sardar Mohammed, a Kabul diesel-and-gasoline merchant, said he and his family eat dinner early, then before nightfall move everyone into a room with only one window, which is blocked up with bedding.
”To stop the shrapnel,” he said. ”We learned this during the civil war.”
In other developments Wednesday:
– In Washington, President Bush unveiled a list of the United States’ 22 most-wanted terrorists, including bin Laden and several associates.
– White House officials urged U.S. media networks to be cautious in broadcasting prerecorded communications from bin Laden and associates in case they contained coded instructions for fresh strikes.
– U.S. water system operators asked for $5 billion from Congress to protect drinking water and wastewater plants from terrorism.
The United States has claimed air supremacy in the campaign against the poorly equipped Taliban, the hard-line Islamic militia that rules most of Afghanistan. The Americans now plan to use 5,000-pound laser-guided bombs against the underground bunkers of Taliban leaders and bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror network.
U.S. officials said U.S. warplanes also would begin dropping cluster munitions – bombs that dispense smaller bomblets – for use against moving and stationary land targets such as armored vehicles and troop convoys.
Bush launched the bombing campaign after weeks of fruitless efforts to get the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, chief suspect in the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The United States has coupled the air assaults with a humanitarian effort, dropping packets of food aid into Afghanistan from planes. The Taliban announced Wednesday that angry Afghans were destroying the packets rather than eating the food.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, called the aid an attempt to ”dishonor” the Afghan people by repaying their shed blood with offerings of food.
Zaeef also insisted that the Taliban militia was not defenseless.
”American planes are flying very high, and the defense system that we have, they are not in the range of what we have,” said Zaeef. ”As we know, we do not have that sophisticated and modern defense system. But that they have destroyed our defense capability is not true.”
He said bin Laden was still alive, as was Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Warplanes have repeatedly targeted Mullah Omar’s compound outside Kandahar, though he is said to have fled it Sunday. Wednesday morning, the compound and Kandahar’s airport again came under fire again.
The United Nations said assaults against its Afghan staffers have taken place in recent days in cities that have been prime targets for U.S. warplanes since the airstrikes began Sunday – Kabul, Kandahar and the eastern city of Jalalabad.
U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said in Islamabad that U.N. vehicles, including ambulances and mine-clearing vehicles, have also been seized – part of what seemed to be a stepped-up campaign of harassment. ”It seems to be intensifying,” she said.
The United Nations withdrew its international staff from Afghanistan two days after Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States because of security fears. Hundreds of Afghan employees remained behind, trying to continue delivering food and other humanitarian aid.
On Monday night, four security guards at a U.N.-affiliated mine-clearing operation were killed during an American air raid on Kabul. The building where they worked was only a few hundred yards from one of the night’s targets, a transmission tower.
Along rugged stretches of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Pakistani troops have been fending off Taliban fighters apparently seeking to flee the bombing campaign.
Pakistani defense and intelligence officials said Wednesday that Pakistani soldiers fought a two-hour gunbattle a day earlier with about 30 Taliban soldiers who were trying to cross over – the second such incident in two days.
On Monday, Taliban pilots flew five helicopters across the border, where they were detained by Pakistani authorities, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, rebels in Afghanistan’s north said the American-led air campaign was helping their cause. Waisaddin Salik, a spokesman for the northern opposition alliance contacted by telephone from Pakistan, said U.S. jets had bombed Taliban positions in the district of Shakardara on Tuesday night.
The district, 15 miles north of Kabul, is along the battle line where the alliance has been facing off against Taliban troops. It was the first reported bombing of such a front-line position by U.S. forces.
The Taliban, for their part, said they had repelled a rebel assault in northern Ghor province. Taliban spokesman Abdul Hanan Himat said 35 opposition fighters were killed.
The claims could not be independently verified.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Kathy Gannon contributed to this dispatch from Islamabad, Pakistan.
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