Navy sends missiles aloft from Arabian, Red seas Suspected terrorist facility, chemical weapons site targeted

August 21, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The attacks unleashed by the United States yesterday were achieved with scores of Navy missiles -- each weighing 2,650 pounds and with a range of 1,000 miles -- fired from ships in the Arabian Sea and Red Sea, government sources said.

Defense officials provided few details of the strikes. But government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said yesterday it was exclusively a Navy effort that involved 75 to 100 cruise missiles and no aircraft.

The simultaneous missile attacks, which began about 1: 30 p.m. EDT, targeted alleged terrorist training sites in a remote region of Afghanistan south of Kabul, and an alleged chemical weapons site in an industrial area south of Khartoum, Sudan. Defense officials said they timed the missile attacks during the evening in both countries to minimize civilian casualties.

There were no immediate estimates of casualties or damage, but Sudanese television broadcast pictures of a burning building and of the wounded being taken away in stretchers.

One defense official said intelligence reports showed extensive damage to the suspected Sudanese chemical weapons facility. Infrared indicators, which reflect heat from the bombing fires, "were growing nicely," said a senior Pentagon official.

Defense officials said the training sites and the chemical weapons facility were supported by Osama bin Laden, the shadowy Saudi millionaire living in Afghanistan who is suspected of masterminding the deadly embassy bombings and has called for further attacks against Americans.

Retaliation and deterrence

President Clinton said yesterday that one of the reasons for the attacks was to retaliate against terrorists believed responsible for the embassy bombings that killed 300 people, including 12 Americans. But defense officials stressed that the strikes were also an effort to cripple a well-organized terrorist network that was planning attacks against other U.S. embassies and American military installations overseas.

One senior Pentagon official said the U.S. strikes came amid an imminent threat against the U.S. embassy in Albania.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said the effort was designed to "reduce the ability of these terrorist organizations to train and equip their misguided followers or to acquire weapons of mass destruction for their use in campaigns of terror."

"We recognize that these strikes will not eliminate the problem," Cohen said, "but our message is clear: There will be no sanctuary for terrorists, and no limit to our resolve to defend American citizens and our interests, our ideals of democracy and law against these cowardly attacks. Those who attack our people will find no safe place, no refuge from the long arm of justice."

Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said six sites were struck in Afghanistan, including four training sites, which are linked to terrorist groups including bin Laden's group, the Armed Islamic Group, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Shelton said the facilities housed up to 600 individuals.

"Within the camp are numerous structures -- tent stands, obstacle courses, firing ranges, and burned areas for explosive testing and training," Shelton said.

Chemical weapons

Shelton said there has been "convincing information" that the bin Laden network has been seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons to use against U.S. citizens and interests around the world.

"The intelligence community is confident that this facility is involved in the production of chemical weapons agents, including precursor chemicals for the deadly V-series of nerve agents like, for example, VX," Shelton said. "We also know that bin Laden has extensive ties to the Sudanese government, which controls this chemical facility."

Exposure to VX causes vomiting, convulsions and death if left untreated. Cohen said it is uncertain whether bin Laden possesses chemical weapons.

The defense secretary said he was uncertain whether bin Laden was present at any of the sites during the attack and said the bombing strikes were not aimed at him.

"That was not our design," Cohen said. "Our design was to take down this structure, which is responsible for training hundreds, if not thousands, of terrorists."

Shelton said officials were releasing few details on the attack because of fears of terrorist retaliation against military forces.

"After Desert Storm, as I recall very well, a lot of detail was put out about how we attack different targets, things of this nature," he said. "We are in a different ball game today. We are going against a terrorist organization, and that calls for some different techniques."

Congress not alerted

The senior Pentagon official said the go-ahead for the attack "was very tightly held" by top officials. Members of Congress were kept in the dark.

"I regret the lack of consultation with Congress," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is a member of the Armed Services Committee. "This is a very significant step.

"However, again, I think the president did the right thing," McCain said. "I think the majority of the American people will support him, especially the families of those whose lives were taken in the senseless act of terror that was inflicted on our -- at our -- U.S. embassies."

Pub Date: 8/21/98

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