Afghans warned of food tainting

Taliban might poison U.S.-dropped rations, Pentagon advises

War On Terrorism

October 25, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Pentagon officials said yesterday they have information that the ruling Taliban government in Afghanistan might try to poison "one or more" types of food sources intended for refugees and other civilians and blame it on America.

"The United States has obtained information that the Taliban might intend to poison humanitarian foodstuffs," said Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We are confident of the information that we have, that they may intend to blame it on the Americans."

Stufflebeem said he could provide no specifics on the reports, which he indicated came from the U.S. intelligence community.

"I don't know the context of how the Taliban has characterized this threat, but I would view that they might consider any food source, or any humanitarian aid, as something they might taint," he said in what amounted to a verbal pre-emptive strike.

The United States is providing most of the humanitarian assistance that has been sent into Afghanistan since the bombing campaign started three weeks ago. Part of that assistance comes from the humanitarian daily rations that have been dropped into the country by C-17 cargo planes since the bombing began Oct. 7.

About 785,000 daily rations have been dropped. A variety of relief organizations also provide food, though some has reportedly been seized by the Taliban.

Getting the word out

The admiral said the United States was trying to get the word out about possible poisoned food to Afghan refugees "as far and fast as we can," before it "might become a fact." Aid officials say millions of refugees have been displaced by the U.S. airstrikes and fighting between the Taliban and rebel forces.

Refugees should accept food only from an agency they can trust and stay away from those "who are not reputable," he said. Stufflebeem said, for example, that the Taliban are known to control some Red Cross food warehouses. In addition, he indicated that the Taliban might collect the rations air-dropped by the United States and tamper with them.

Pentagon officials have become increasingly concerned by what it terms the Taliban's deception tactics, including claims that their forces shot down U.S. helicopters and charges that U.S. bombs are routinely causing scores of civilian casualties. While the Pentagon has admitted that some of its bombs have gone astray, officials have said they have no specific information about casualties.

A senior defense official, who requested anonymity, said yesterday that there is increasing evidence the Taliban are moving their military equipment closer to residential neighborhoods and sites such as mosques.

To help make his case, the official provided a picture of a military airfield outside the western city of Herat that showed a helicopter parked next to a mosque.

Placing the helicopter in close proximity to a house of worship was an effort to prevent an American attack or blame the United States should a bomb accidentally strike the mosque, the official said. But a later picture showed that U.S. warplanes were able to destroy the helicopter without damaging the mosque. However, United Nations officials said the mosque had been destroyed, too.

Bombing continues

The U.S. bombing campaign continued into its third week, with attacks again focusing on Taliban and terrorist forces, as well as command and control facilities, armor and vehicle maintenance and storage facilities, Stufflebeem said.

The attacks took place on the Shomali Plains north of the capital city of Kabul, near the northern cities of Mazar-e Sharif and Kunduz, as well as Herat.

Stufflebeem, in response to a question, called the Taliban "tough warriors" and acknowledged he was "a bit surprised at how doggedly they are holding on to their power." He added: "We're in an environment that they are obviously experts in, and it is extremely harsh."

Still, he said, the United States will continue its military operation against the Taliban indefinitely. "We are prepared to take however long is required to bring the Taliban down," he said. "We definitely need to have patience."

Stufflebeem also said that the two Marine helicopters that came under small-arms fire last weekend in neighboring Pakistan while trying to salvage a downed U.S. helicopter returned to finish the job yesterday. Saturday, the Marines were shot at by unknown gunmen and returned fire while a heavy-lift Sea Stallion helicopter carried the wreckage of an Army Black Hawk helicopter that had crashed over the weekend.

The Marines were refueling at an undisclosed location when they came under fire. As a result, the Marines aborted the mission and left the wreckage behind. The Black Hawk helicopter had accidentally crashed deep inside Pakistan, said officials, killing two soldiers and injuring three others, though not seriously.

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