Key adviser to bin Laden believed dead

U.S. raid this week may have killed Atef, al-Qaida strategist

Architect of Sept. 11 terror

U.S. rejects pleas on Ramadan, strikes two Taliban cities

November 17, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Mohammed Atef, one of Osama bin Laden's top lieutenants, is believed to have been killed Wednesday when a U.S. airstrike destroyed a house where he was staying, officials said yesterday.

Atef, 57, said by authorities to have given the final order for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was thought to be among those killed in a bombing run near the Afghan capital, Kabul, according to intelligence reports, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.

Meanwhile, the United States kept up its air attacks in the country as Afghans tried to work out who would replace the Taliban.

Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, at the daily Pentagon briefing, said that if Atef is dead, it would be a key development in dismantling bin Laden's network. Atef is considered al-Qaida's third-ranking official. His daughter was married earlier this year to one of bin Laden's sons.

"It probably has no impact on operations that have already been planned and, as you might term, are `in the can,' just awaiting for some triggering device to be released," said Stufflebeem. It would, however, help prevent future terrorist operations, he said.

Over the past week, U.S. aircraft have successfully struck a number of command and control centers operated by the Taliban and al-Qaida, officials said. Intelligence reports, apparently based on intercepted conversations from the terrorist network, indicate that Atef was killed in one of those strikes.

Atef's death would mean that the United States and its allies on the ground are "one notch closer" to tightening the noose around al-Qaida, a main goal of the Afghanistan campaign, Stufflebeem said.

Officials said they do not know where bin Laden is. Rumsfeld, who said earlier this week that it would be "relatively easy" for bin Laden and his lieutenants to slip across the border into Pakistan, played down that possibility yesterday.

"I think it's chasing the wrong rabbit to assume that he's fled," the defense secretary said during a visit to a naval training center outside Chicago. But he conceded that "anything's possible."

In war-related activity yesterday, U.S. bombers struck targets in two Taliban-held cities as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began. American officials, rejecting pleas by the leaders of a number of Muslim nations, have said they have no intention of halting the war effort for the holiday.

The commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Tommy Franks, briefed President Bush by video conference on details of his latest plans for the fast-changing situation in the battle zone. No details were announced.

Since the rout of bin Laden and his allies began, Pentagon officials said, the Taliban have lost control of more than two-thirds of the country. But Rumsfeld said it would be a mistake to conclude that they have been defeated.

Fighting continued near the northern city of Kunduz, where several thousand troops loyal to bin Laden, including Pakistanis and Arabs, were under siege. They are "determined to fight, and they're dug in," Stufflebeem said, describing the situation as "a standoff."

There were conflicting reports from Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold in the southern part of the country, that Mullah Mohammed Omar, supreme leader of the Taliban, was preparing to abandon his base and flee into the mountains.

The Afghan Islamic Press agency, based in Pakistan, said Omar was in the process of working out a deal with fellow Pashtun leaders for control of the city.

The tribal leaders, Mullah Naqibullah and Haji Basher, were commanders in the Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Basher is said to be close to another Pashtun leader, Yunus Khalis, who reportedly tried to assume power in the city of Jalalabad this week.

U.S. officials "don't put much stock" in the reports about Omar's relinquishing control of Kandahar, Stufflebeem said.

U.S. warplanes have continued to strike the city as well as Taliban caves and tunnels in different parts of the country. Rumsfeld said for the first time that U.S. special forces hunting bin Laden in southern Afganistan were involved in ground combat, "killing Taliban that won't surrender."

"They have gone into places and met resistance and dealt with it," Rumsfeld said. He added that no Americans had been killed or wounded in the encounters.

The defense secretary also told reporters that he believed "a number" of other al-Qaida leaders had been killed in recent days. But he added that he had no "laundry list of their names or really good validation" that they were dead.

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