WASHINGTON (AP) _ Low-flying AC-130 gunships are hitting Taliban troops in a tough new assault on Afghanistan's leadership, officials said. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the front lines, facing rebel forces, soon will not be a safe place for the Taliban.
American warplanes carried out the heaviest daytime bombardment yet of Afghanistan on Monday, and the attacks continued into the night. Monday's plan was to strike 18 to 20 targets, including Taliban troop concentrations, said a senior defense official speaking on condition of anonymity.
The strikes will focus even more on the ruling militia's troops once the Pentagon gets better information from rebel forces, Rumsfeld said Monday at a news conference.
Speaking of the Taliban front line, Rumsfeld said: ``I suspect that in the period ahead, that's not going to be a very safe place to be.''
To that end, a senior defense official said the Air Force sent into combat on Monday the AC-130 turboprop gunship.
Another defense official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the AC-130 was used against Taliban military barracks and headquarters buildings at a base in Kandahar, the seat of Taliban power. The official indicated that further use of the gunship against other targets was likely.
The use of the AC-130 marked a new step of the air campaign, aimed directly at the Taliban leadership. Previous raids had targeted air defense and other military facilities with the aim of making the skies safe for low-altitude, slow moving aircraft like the AC-130, a high-fire power aircraft that is typically used to support ground forces trained for small-unit operations. It was the first use of special-forces aircraft in the conflict.
``We felt it was the appropriate weapon to be used,'' the senior defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He declined to discuss specific targets or results.
On Sunday, the U.S. military began dropping leaflets on Afghan citizens, along with food, Rumsfeld said.
``We're working to make clear to the Afghan people that we support them and we want to help free their nation from the grip of the Taliban and their foreign terrorist allies,'' he said.
The leaflets falling to Afghans with humanitarian food packets are in the local languages of Pashtu and Dari, said Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
One leaflet shows a Western soldier in camouflage and helmet shaking hands with a man in traditional Afghan dress in front of a mountain scene.
``The partnership of nations is here to assist the people of Afghanistan,'' the leaflet said.
Another depicts a radio transmitting tower and sketches of radios and tells times and radio frequencies to tune in for what it calls ``Information Radio.'' The broadcasts started earlier, but leaflets telling people to listen were delayed because of windy conditions last week, a Pentagon official said.
More than 68,000 food packets were dropped during the weekend, bringing the total to 275,000 since the effort began.
Rumsfeld disputed Taliban reports that U.S. bombing has killed hundreds of civilians. ``Some of the numbers (claimed) are ridiculous,'' he said. The ``Taliban leadership and al-Qaida are accomplished liars.''
Al-Qaida is the network run by Osama bin Laden, principal suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States that prompted the U.S.-led assault on the Taliban and bin Laden and his followers.
The Taliban have said up to 200 people died when the village of Karam was bombed last week. Rumsfeld said the airstrikes targeted caves where weapons were stored, and the bombs touched off several secondary explosions and a four-hour fire.
Without giving a number, Rumsfeld acknowledged some Afghan civilians have been unintended casualties. ``I don't think there is any way to avoid that'' in a war, he said.
Meanwhile, the USS Theodore Roosevelt joined three aircraft carriers in the region, the Navy confirmed Monday.
Myers said U.S. and British strikes hit 17 targets Saturday, including al-Qaida terrorist training camps, airfields, air defense forces and command-and-control facilities.
About 25 American aircraft were used, including land-based bombers and strike aircraft launched from U.S. carriers in the Arabian Sea, Myers said. In addition, 15 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired Saturday from U.S. and British ships and submarines, he said.
Sunday's attacks hit seven targets, including Taliban troop staging areas, Myers said.
American military officials believe the Taliban still have planes and helicopters untouched by bombs, Rumsfeld said.
The anti-terrorist attacks will not end during Afghanistan's cold, snowy winter, Myers said.
``Let me just say that we have an all-weather force,'' he said. ``And visible and probably invisible things are going to happen off and on for a very long period of time.''