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U.S. jets pound heart of Kabul; opposition battles for control of northern city

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ U.S. jets attacked targets in the heart of Afghanistan's capital Thursday. Residents said at least five civilians - including four members of one family - were killed when bombs crashed into residential areas in Kabul.

In Washington, defense sources said U.S. special forces were now in place aboard the USS Kitty Hawk in the Indian Ocean - ready for any search-and-destroy missions ordered against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies.

Two houses were destroyed in Kabul's Quilazaman Khan neighborhood, located near a Taliban tank unit. Neighbors said the four family members were killed when a bomb hit the area. Rescuers were digging through the rubble looking for a fifth family member. A 16-year-old girl was also killed in a nearby housing complex.

The number of casualties could not be immediately confirmed. The United States has said it is not targeting civilians in its barrage and has expressed regret for any unintended casualties.

Attacks on the capital began before dawn Thursday when U.S. warplanes pounded areas around the presidential palace and beyond, drawing heavy anti-aircraft barrages.

Taliban Information Ministry officials said the strikes were blasting the city's Shash Tarak district - not far from Quialazaman Khan - an area where the Taliban Defense Ministry, a garrison and a tank unit are located, as well as the long-abandoned U.S. Embassy.

Flames rose from the airport north of the city, though it was impossible to determine their source. On Wednesday, U.S. pilots struck a fuel depot near the airport, sending inky black smoke billowing over Kabul.

In Kandahar, the Taliban's headquarters in southern Afghanistan, U.S. jets struck military targets throughout the city, Taliban officials reported. Residents said by telephone Wednesday that Taliban fighters in the city were handing out weapons to civilians.

New strikes were also reported in the northeastern city of Jalalabad on Thursday, targeting the airport.

In California, President Bush told a flag-waving crowd Wednesday that American airstrikes were ``paving the way for friendly troops on the ground.''

It was Bush's clearest suggestion yet that U.S. military officials were taking Afghanistan's northern-based opposition alliance into account in their campaign against Afghanistan, launched Oct. 7 to root out bin Laden, chief suspect in last month's terrorist attacks in the United States.

Opposition forces have been locked in combat for days in what U.S. defense officials described as a seesaw battle for Mazar-e-Sharif, the major city of the north.

A Taliban Information Ministry official in Kabul, Abdul Hanan Himat, acknowledged the Taliban had lost control of some areas around Mazar-e-Sharif but insisted the Islamic regime's forces had pushed its enemy back during one battle to the south.

Afghanistan's opposition forces are an alliance made up largely of minority ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks. Control of Mazar-e-Sharif would allow them to consolidate supply lines along the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, from which they obtain weapons.

In Washington, defense officials said U.S. special forces units themselves were now poised to join the battle on the ground, if called for.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials said helicopter-borne special operations forces were put aboard the USS Kitty Hawk several days ago. The officials stressed that did not necessarily mean the troops were about to enter combat.

In northwestern Pakistan, a militant Muslim leader said Thursday that pro-Taliban groups there were ready to offer tens of thousands of volunteers to help the Taliban if U.S. ground troops joined the fight.

``The day American troops land on the soil of Afghanistan, our youths are fully trained, and their minds and their hearts are filled with the feelings of holy war,'' said Maulana Samiul Haq, president of the Afghan Defense Council, a coalition of 35 pro-Taliban groups.

Aid groups, meanwhile, complained that looting by the Taliban and other armed bands was hampering desperately needed relief operations for Afghan civilians.

Medecins sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, shut down medical operations in two major cities Thursday after its offices there were sacked.

The programs in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif together had helped treat the ill and feed children in six Afghan provinces, Morten Rostrup of MSF said.

In Kabul, Taliban officials returned one of two U.N. World Food Program grain warehouses that had been commandeered earlier in the week at gunpoint - but there was no word on the warehouse still in Taliban hands.

The warehouses together held about half of all the wheat the WFP had in Afghanistan.

New York-based Human Rights Watch blamed the Taliban and foreign Arabs believed linked to bin Laden's al-Qaida network for some of the spate of attacks on international humanitarian operations.

Aid groups say 2 million Afghans are in great need of aid.

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, asked aid groups Thursday to send food and medicine on an emergency basis, saying ``precious lives are lost every day'' because of shortages.
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