Rumsfeld says American and allied troops are prepared for spring battles against terrorists

Saturday, April 27th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan are fully prepared for a renewal of al-Qaida and Taliban attacks this spring, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Saturday.

``There are a lot of people saying 'Well, now that spring's coming, the Taliban and al-Qaida will reorganize,''' Rumsfeld told reporters en route here from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. ``Well if they do, we'll go after them.''

Rumsfeld, who flew here aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane, planned to meet with U.S. commanders to review progress in running down remnants of al-Qaida and Taliban forces in eastern Afghanistan.

He also was greeting U.S. troops based here and holding a question-and-answer session with them _ a forum that has become a staple of Rumsfeld's visits to troops in the field.

Later he planned to meet with the head of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, and other key leadership figures.

Before leaving Bishkek, Rumsfeld met with Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev at the presidential palace, known as the White House.

The secretary thanked Akayev for allowing U.S. and allied troops to use Manas airport for combat and support missions into Afghanistan.

Akayev said his government fully supports the U.S. effort to combat terrorism.

``We have no doubt Mr. Rumsfeld will be completely successful in Afghanistan,'' he said at a joint news conference with Rumsfeld.

In a pep talk Friday to U.S. troops in Bishkek, Rumsfeld urged them to prepare for a long war against the ``evil of mass murderers'' _ and not only in Afghanistan.

``To the extent that they have safe havens, sanctuaries where they can go, then the effort we've put into Afghanistan will be for nothing,'' he told about 400 troops assembled under a tent.

``You stand against an evil _ an evil of mass murderers,'' he said to rousing cheers. ``It's an evil that can't be appeased, it can't be ignored and it certainly cannot be allowed to prevail.''

About 1,000 U.S. troops are based in Bishkek for fighter, cargo and air refueling missions over Afghanistan.

In a sign of security concerns, reporters accompanying Rumsfeld were forbidden to report in advance which parts of Afghanistan he would visit.

The last time he was in Afghanistan the Taliban regime had just been defeated, the interim government headed by Karzai had not yet been installed and speculation about Osama bin Laden's whereabouts was rampant.

Rumsfeld rarely mentions bin Laden in public unless asked, but he was reminded Friday that at least some of those in uniform equate success in Afghanistan with getting rid of the suspected terrorist mastermind.

One airman asked Rumsfeld: ``When we get our hands on Mr. bin Laden, are we going to negotiate with him or annihilate him?''

Grinning amid hoots and hollers from his audience, Rumsfeld replied, ``In truth, it's kind of his choice.''

``We're hunting him down,'' he said. ``We're tracking him down. He's hiding. We haven't heard hide nor hair of him for about, oh, since December, in terms of anything hard.'' Rumsfeld said that even with bin Laden still on the loose, ``He is probably not very effective now in running the al-Qaida organization.''

Some believe bin Laden slipped away when his al-Qaida fighters made a last stand at Tora Bora in mid-December.