SCMP Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Afghanistan awakes after 'night of horror'


Updated at 10.34am:
Terrified residents of the Afghan capital began emerging from their homes on Monday after punishing waves of air attacks by the United States and its allies on Taleban targets across the country.
As dawn broke and a curfew was lifted, it was still too early to tell what damage or casualties had been caused by at least three waves of attacks. But witnesses reported some deaths in Kabul although it was unclear if they were civilians or soldiers.
''People have seen some bodies from the attacks,'' one witness said. ''There are several deaths.''
Taleban officials said Osama bin Laden had escaped unscathed, as had Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. ''Thanks be to God,'' Taleban Ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef told reporters when asked if the two men were still alive.
Witnesses said the first planes roared over Kabul at around 9:20 pm on Sunday soon after a nightly curfew took effect, and lit up the night sky by dropping bombs or firing missiles at targets in the city and near the airport.
As at least two more waves followed over the next few hours, Taleban forces in Kabul, much of which has already been reduced to rubble by two decades of war, fired volleys of anti-aircraft fire - to little apparent effect.
Witnesses saw planes streaking over the western Pakistan city of Quetta, using Islamabad's promise to open its airspace.
It was not immediately possible to determine what damage might have been caused because the curfew was strictly enforced, but Kabul's residents described a night of terror.
''Only God knows what has happened,'' said one as dawn broke in the city. ''I am leaving. I will sleep under the sky rather than stay in the city for another night.''
Electricity went off almost immediately, although it was not clear if this was the result of strikes or a defensive measure. It was restored about 90 minutes later.
The Taleban's Voice of Shariat radio has been off the air since the first attack.
Minutes after Kabul came under attack, so too did the Taleban stronghold of Kandahar, location of the headquarters of Mullah Omar, protector of the chief suspect in last month's attacks on the United States, the multi-millionaire militant bin Laden.
Residents reported a mass exodus from the city as panic spread.
The eastern city of Jalalabad and surrounding guerrilla training camps were next, and there were reports that western Herat as well as the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif came under fire.
US President George W. Bush called the raids ''carefully targeted actions'' that were ''designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taleban regime''.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the raids included B-2 stealth bombers flying from the United States and 50 air- and ship-fired Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Although long expected, the strikes still caught residents of the war-shattered capital by surprise.
''You could hear planes, then I heard anti-aircraft fire,'' one resident said. ''Then I heard loud explosions, maybe four or five... They were close together so it was hard to tell.''
A second wave of even louder explosions rocked the city less than five hours later and a third wave triggered yet more anti-aircraft fire that lit up the sky with red tracers.
''I heard the roar of planes overhead,'' one resident said. ''The explosions were very loud in the north of Kabul (near the airport) and the power was cut again.''
One US submarine and one British submarine also launched cruise missiles along with two US destroyers and one American cruiser, US defence officials said.
Witnesses said people poured into the streets once the first wave of the attack ended, peering anxiously at the sky. Taleban fighters fired rifles and machineguns into the air before ordering people back into their homes.
One big blast struck near the Taleban's defence ministry, south of the presidential palace. Anti-aircraft batteries near the airport also appeared to be a target.
A large plume of smoke billowed near the airport and residents living nearby began to flee, ignoring the curfew.
''People are trying to run away,'' one resident told Reuters. ''They are very scared. They are very frightened.''
A second wave of attacks launched about two hours later appeared aimed at the home of Mullah Omar.
One Taleban source told Reuters by telephone from Kandahar that the main airport complex, built by the United States in the 1950s, had been hit in the raid, but the runway was undamaged.
A residential area in Kandahar where bin Laden once lived was also struck.
Taleban ambassador Zaeef said the US raids were a ''horrendous terrorist attack'' on Afghanistan.
''Such a brutal attitude by America will unify the whole Afghan nation,'' he told a news conference in Islamabad.
The United States had been threatening since mid-September to attack the Taleban unless they handed over bin Laden.
The attacks on Kabul could be seen from territory 40km to the north held by the anti-Taleban Afghan opposition, the Northern Alliance.
At Topdara, the Northern Alliance took advantage of the US air strikes on Kabul to fire volleys of rockets on the Taleban on Monday and said they planned heavier attacks, witnesses said.
Anti-Taleban fighters on the front line burst into song as orange flashes of anti-aircraft fire appeared over the capital.
''I am happy! The Taleban are our enemies, but America is on our side, fighting terrorists in Afghanistan,'' said Almaz, a frontline opposition fighter. ''Now we are happy!''
The attacks ended weeks of manoeuvring by the Taleban over what to do about their ''guest'' bin Laden.
On Sunday, their envoy to Pakistan said the Taleban were ready to try him if the United States provided evidence of his guilt - an offer immediately rejected by Washington.
Taleban claims that bin Laden was firmly under their control also appeared hollow when Qatar's al-Jazeera television broadcast a videotape in which, wearing battle fatigues and an AK-47 by his side, the guerrilla leader swore that Americans would not live in peace until Palestinians could do the same.
''God has blessed a group of of vanguard Muslims to destroy America,'' he said. ''May God bless them and allot them a place in heaven''.