SCMP Tuesday, October 9, 2001

America strikes back

AGENCIES in Washington and Kabul

The United States and Britain last night launched a wave of air strikes against Afghanistan which US President George W. Bush said were designed to clear the way for "sustained, comprehensive and relentless" operations against terrorism.
Eyewitnesses said they saw flashes and heard explosions over the Afghan capital, Kabul, while other attacks were reported throughout the country.
However, Afghanistan's Taleban regime said Osama bin Laden, America's prime suspect for the terror attacks on the US on September 11, and Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, had survived the US strikes. It said there had been "no significant damage".
Bin Laden appeared on Qatari television in a recorded message to personally praise the strikes on New York and Washington and to say he was ready for the confrontation.
In a televised address from the White House, Mr Bush said the strikes against Afghanistan were carefully targeted at military installations and the US would also be air-dropping food to needy Afghan people to demonstrate that its war was not against them.
In response, the Taleban's envoy to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said the US action was a "terrorist attack", branding America "power drunk" and "arrogant". He said the Taleban would never hand over bin Laden.
"Such brutal attacks will unify the whole Afghan nation. The Afghan people will rise against this new colonial attempt," he said.
Mr Bush said: "These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taleban regime.
"We are joined in this operation by our staunch friend, Great Britain," he said, adding that several other countries had also pledged forces as the operation unfolded.
The US had warned the Taleban to hand over bin Laden along with his lieutenants and to stop hosting terrorist camps. "None of these demands have been met and now the Taleban will pay a price," Mr Bush said. "By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and co-ordinate their evil plans."
The President called on Americans and their allies to be patient, saying the war would not be over quickly. Initially, he said, bin Laden and his terror network might be able to burrow deeper in caves and other hiding places.
"Our military action is also designed to clear the way for sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations to drive them out and bring them to justice," he said.
In his televised recording, bin Laden said the US would never see peace until there was peace in Palestine, thanked God for the September 11 strikes and said the men who had carried them out were "in heaven".
President Bush reportedly made a series of calls before the attacks, including to French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The action began with a volley of about 50 1,600km-range cruise missiles from both US and British ships and submarines in the Arabian Sea, targeting air defences and terrorist camps and other strategic sites connected to the Taleban, Pentagon sources said.
Fearing retaliation for the strikes, the US yesterday also issued a dire warning to its citizens, telling them that the military strikes could lead to terrorist responses against Americans and American interests abroad.
From Afghanistan itself, reports came of rocket strikes close to the Defence Ministry in Kabul while a Taleban official said an unidentified plane had been downed in southern Afghanistan. An official in Kabul said by telephone: "We are under attack. They bombed the south of Kabul. Our guns are firing."
The regime said the airport had also been bombed and electricity was cut off in the capital.
A Taleban official confirmed its command-and-control system in the southern city of Kandahar had been knocked out, according to CNN. Loud blasts were heard at the airport. Aircraft were heard over the eastern city of Jalalabad, where the Taleban's radio service went off the air.
It was also reported that three towns in the north were struck, including the strategic Taleban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Opposition Northern Alliance foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah said at least three training camps near Jalalabad might have been hit. The attack came about 15 minutes after Kabul and Kandahar were hit by air raids.
There were reports of attacks near Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's house in Kandahar.
Indications of impending strikes came when Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced at about midnight (Hong Kong time) a briefing for 2.45am, after top civilian and military officials held unusual early-morning meetings at the Pentagon. It was also announced that Defence Department Undersecretary Douglas Feith had cut short his tour of Gulf states and was heading back to Washington.
At the same time, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced a press conference for this afternoon.
Other warnings that the strikes were imminent came last night from the Northern Alliance's Dr Abdullah.
When asked at a news conference if a US attack could be just hours away, he looked at his watch, saying: "What time is it now? I'm not saying soon, I'm saying very soon."
The opposition would launch its own offensive shortly after the US-led attacks, Dr Abdullah said. He also revealed that the opposition air space had been closed in recent days in expectation of a US-led attack.
Asked what would be targeted during the opposition push, Dr Abdullah said: "Any Taleban position, any Taleban stronghold in Afghanistan will be a target."