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US hitting Taliban forces north of Kabul, Pentagon says


WASHINGTON (AP) _ U.S. military warplanes have begun hitting Taliban and al-Qaida forces in northern Afghanistan, including Taliban troops dug in north of Kabul, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday.

``It's true, the United States has been engaged in various air activities'' to target such forces north of the Afghan capital, said Rumsfeld, joined at a Pentagon briefing by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard Myers.

Myers said the most recent strikes over the weekend were conducted against forces ``arrayed in the field against people we would like to help,'' apparently a reference to the opposition northern alliance.

``Operations are ongoing and are proceeding according to plan,'' Myers said.

The four-star Air Force general said U.S. warplanes attacked six target on Saturday and eight on Sunday, using strike aircraft from Navy carriers and long-range bombers.

Besides the Taliban troops in the field, the strikes also targeted air fields, command-and-control sites, and armored vehicles, Myers said.

Rumsfeld denied Taliban reports that U.S. warplanes had struck a hospital near Herat, supposedly killing 100. Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef made the claim earlier Monday in Islamabad, Pakistan.

``We have absolutely no evidence at all'' that a hospital had been hit, Rumsfeld told reporters.

In the third week of strikes, the U.S. military pursued a mission to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

Warplanes bombed Taliban positions Sunday near a frontline north of Kabul, marking what could be the start of a more forceful campaign to help rebel forces fighting the regime that harbors bin Laden.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon released the names of two members of the Army's elite Ranger regiment killed over the weekend as part of the first publicly acknowledged covert mission in the anti-terrorism effort.

Asked Sunday whether U.S. forces would kill bin Laden on sight, Myers said it depends on what happens when he's found.

``If it's a defensive situation, then bullets will fly, but if we can capture somebody, then we'll do that,'' he said on ABC's ``This Week.''

Asked the same question, Secretary of State Colin Powell told CNN's ``Late Edition:'' ``Our mission is to bring him to justice or bring justice to him.''

President Bush signed an order last month directing the CIA to destroy bin Laden and his communications, security apparatus and infrastructure in retaliation for the Sept. 11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, a senior administration official said Sunday.

Bush also added more than $1 billion to the spy agency's war on terrorism, most of it for the new covert action.

The CIA has been in southern Afghanistan, trying to win over ethnic Pashtun leaders not solidly behind the Taliban, officials have said.

It also has operated an unmanned Predator spy vehicle outfitted with missiles, defense officials indicated last week. It is the first time the United States has used the armed, remote-controlled drone in a military campaign, they said.

Besides the air strikes north of Kabul, Afghan officials reported air attacks Sunday around the western city of Herat, Kandahar in the south and the front line positions near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Officials of the northern alliance fighting the Taliban had been asking the United States to bomb the front line north of Kabul so that they could move on the capital, but until now bombing of front line positions has mostly been around Mazar-e-Sharif.

Powell said the United States was ``very interested'' in seeing rebel forces take Mazar-e-Sharif, but was still ``continuing discussion'' about whether a rebel march into Kabul would be ``the best thing.'' The United States and Britain have been reluctant to help the alliance seize Kabul until a broad-based government is formed to replace the Taliban.

Bombing over Afghanistan began Oct. 7, and officials on Saturday released details of daring overnight assaults made by special forces troops starting the previous night to gain intelligence against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

In lightning strikes, some 100 airborne Rangers and other special forces hit a Taliban-controlled airfield and a residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar near Kandahar. Documents and other items taken during the assaults were being analyzed for intelligence value, defense officials said.

Officials said Sunday that hostile fire had been ruled but they were still investigating the helicopter crash in Pakistan that killed the Rangers. They identified the Rangers as Spc. Jonn J. Edmunds, 20 of Cheyenne, Wyo., and Pfc. Kristofor T. Stonesifer, 28, of Missoula, Mont. They served with the 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Fort Benning, Ga.

Officials would not disclose the role of the Black Hawk copter, although some believed it was preparing to swoop across the border into Afghanistan in case any Rangers had to be rescued.
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