Rumsfeld says still air defense threat in Afghanistan, U.S. getting info from opposition forces on ground

Friday, October 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ American bombers are increasingly setting their sights on Taliban troops in Afghanistan, part of an effort to demolish the regime harboring terror suspect Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.

Airstrikes early in the campaign have hit anti-aircraft batteries, command centers, airfields and other fixed targets. Now the strikes are moving toward more mobile targets, such as Taliban troops or convoys, military officials say.

Bombing Taliban troops is meant not only to kill the militia's fighters but also to spread fear, confusion and desertion in the Taliban's ranks. Military planners hope that will weaken the Taliban enough for it to either collapse on its own or fall to the various rebel forces inside Afghanistan.

Without shelter from the Taliban, military officials say, bin Laden and his al-Qaida network will be much less of a threat and much easier to track down.

That process of disruption is already starting, officials said Thursday.

``We've got them on the run,'' President Bush said of al-Qaida members during a prime-time news conference.

Although U.S. planes have begun daylight bombing runs over the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the Taliban home base of Kandahar, the airstrikes still have not eliminated all threats to American planes, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.

``We have to acknowledge the reality that there is still an air defense threat to the United States,'' Rumsfeld told reporters.

Defense officials also have not said whether the bombing would let up Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. Bush, Rumsfeld and other top officials have said the current fight was against terrorists, not Islam.

In their largest casualty claim so far in the war, the Taliban said Friday that at least 200 villagers had been killed two days earlier in airstrikes on a remote settlement east of Kabul. The Pentagon had no comment and the Taliban's claim could not be immediately verified.

The United States was getting information about Taliban targets from Afghan rebel forces, Rumsfeld said. At a Pentagon briefing, Marine Maj. Gen. Henry P. Osman, a senior planner for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. officials were in touch with the so-called northern alliance but were not coordinating targets with the rebels. That decision, Osman said, was a political one.

Cooperation with the Afghan rebels is complicated for the United States, since neighboring Pakistan doesn't want the rebels to come to power and many warlords in the anti-Taliban alliance have reputations for corruption and atrocities against civilians.

Rumsfeld did not voice support for any particular opposition group and said Afghans would shape the future of their country. As for bin Laden's whereabouts, both Bush and Rumsfeld said the Saudi exile probably remained in hiding in Afghanistan.

On Capitol Hill, two northern alliance representatives, Haron Amin and Daoud Mir, gave Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., a largely upbeat assessment of the situation at home. Smith said they told him the Taliban's ``air power has been taken down, which allows them to move more.''

He said they indicated refugees and soldiers were getting the food dropped by U.S. forces, and that morale was high, boosted by what they said were hundreds of defections from the Taliban.

Osman said Wednesday's raids included seven targets, including Taliban troops, vehicle repair facilities and anti-aircraft sites. He displayed four before-and-after pictures showing damage to targets. Among them were surface-to-air missile sites, a motor pool, a radio station in Kabul and parked aircraft.

The Pentagon also released its first gun camera videotape of weapons striking a missile site. It exploded in a fireball and sent at least one of the Taliban missiles spiraling out of control through the smoke.

``We're satisfied at this point that the attacks have been successful,'' Osman said.

Many in the Pentagon joined Bush for an outdoor memorial service held one month after the attacks in New York and Washington.

``On September 11, great sorrow came to our country, and from that sorrow has come great resolve,'' Bush said. Thousands gathered under a huge American flag, out of sight of the gaping hole that still marks the entry point where a hijacked airliner plowed into the building, killing 189.

Thursday marked the first daylight raids on Kabul. Heavy explosions rocked the airport while earlier in the day, civilians fled Kandahar as raids there targeted a compound where followers of bin Laden had lived.

In neighboring Pakistan, government officials said U.S. military personnel arrived on the ground and Americans were granted use of several Pakistani air bases in connection with the confrontation over bin Laden.

More than 15 U.S. military aircraft, including C-130 transport planes, arrived over the past two days at a base at Jacobabad, 300 miles northeast of the port city of Karachi.