Silver specks in the sky, flash of explosions

Along front lines, Afghan allies praise U.S. bombing raids

War On Terrorism

The World

October 23, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CHARIKAR, Afghanistan - U.S. warplanes bombed Taliban troops on the front lines north of Kabul yesterday for the second day in a row, as some of the defenders used every weapon they had, including rifles, in vain efforts to shoot down the high-flying jets.

Aircraft first roared above the mulberry orchards and wheat fields of the Shomali Plain about 4:15 p.m., and people in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance stepped out of their homes or stopped in their tracks on the road to gaze skyward.

Blue sky poked through high clouds. A sliver of moon was rising. The planes made themselves known first as a distant roar, before coming into sight as silver specks. From more than two or three miles away, haze and dust obscured the flash of the explosions.

A second wave of planes arrived after nightfall. Dull red flashes bloomed on the ground near the Bagram Air Base, where the Northern Alliance holds the control tower and Taliban troops wait 200 yards beyond the cratered runway.

Witnesses counted eight bombs, including two that landed near the alliance side of the front line.

Hedayat Ullah, a shaken Northern Alliance officer from the village of Dorahi, west of Bagram, said one of the stray bombs exploded about 100 yards from his outpost, without injuring anyone. Most of the bombs landed in Taliban-controlled areas, included three that exploded in the village of Ghund-e-Shergul.

Alliance soldiers overheard the Taliban commander of Ghund-e-Shergul order his men by radio to fire everything they had at the aircraft. They responded with an anti-aircraft cannon, rockets and assault rifles.

But the aircraft appeared to release their bombs at an altitude far beyond the range of those weapons. No information was available about possible Taliban casualties from the raids.

The attacks Sunday and last night marked the first by American bombers in support of Northern Alliance troops waiting north of Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Until this week, the Bush administration had expressed reluctance to help alliance forces advance on Kabul, apparently out of concern that they would seize the capital before political arrangements acceptable to Pakistan and other countries had been made for governing the country.

Pakistan, which helped support the Taliban, opposes establishing a government led by the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. Pakistan traditionally has allied itself with Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtuns, the country's single largest ethnic group and a significant part of Pakistan.

But American officials now acknowledge the importance of making military progress before the onset of winter. Northern Alliance officials have meanwhile pledged they would advance to Kabul but not enter the city, and await creation of a new government.

Alliance officers welcomed the bombings.

"This is very important for us because they can help us finish off terrorism," said Commander Haji-Gul-Rahman. But the celebration here was muted because of the small scale of the attacks. If the United States has decided to help the Northern Alliance push the Taliban south, it is doing so cautiously and incrementally.

On Sunday, alliance military officers said, U.S. planes dropped 14 bombs on the villages of Qala Bashir and Gheir-e-gol, just south of Bagram air base. They said intelligence reports suggested that 30 soldiers had been killed and three bunkers destroyed.

"The bombing had excellent effect," said Motovar, a 42-year-old intelligence officer. "Morale was raised. The world benefits from it."

The officer, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said he expected the United States to strike the area repeatedly in the coming days.

Alliance officers said the bombing had raised tensions along the front at Bagram. Yesterday the Taliban periodically fired a spray of bullets along the north side of the base as alliance soldiers bicycled along the front line, their weapons slung on their shoulders.

Machine gun bullets flew a few feet above Motovar's head as he walked down a dirt road to the air base control tower, the bullets nicking leaves off trees. When he reached the top of the tower, a bullet buzzed through a glassless window. He retreated to another room and fired a machine gun in the general direction of the Taliban, across the airfield.

The gun chattered like a jackhammer for a few seconds. Then, Motovar stopped, smiled, and asked a one-word question, in Russia: "Good?"

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