Jets target Taliban compounds

'Senior leaders' thought to be at site near Kandahar

War On Terrorism

November 28, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - U.S. Air Force warplanes today attacked two compounds southeast of Kandahar used by senior Taliban leaders, defense officials said.

"We believe there were senior Taliban people there when it was attacked. We're still waiting to get the bomb damage assessment," said Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Klee.

Earlier there was speculation that top Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was at one of the sites, but officials said they were uncertain which members of the Taliban leadership were present.

"It clearly was a leadership area," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him to the Florida headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, which is managing the war in Afghanistan. "Whoever was there is going to wish they weren't."

The attacks by a B-1B and an F-16, using precision-guided weapons, took place at 1 a.m. today (4 p.m. EST yesterday).

Rumsfeld said he did not know who was in the compound and he did not mention Omar. Officials at Central Command said Omar and his chief aides were known to frequent the site.

Meanwhile, officials said the Pentagon has identified more than 40 sites in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network might have conducted research on chemical, biological and nuclear weaponry.

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, told reporters that some of the sites are laboratories.

The sites are being carefully checked as they come under control of anti-Taliban forces, he said.

"We'll perform the tests that need to be performed at every possible facility," Franks said, adding that no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons material has been found.

Samples from a variety of the chemicals are being tested in the United States and the results could take time. Franks said some of the chemicals might be associated with the making of fertilizer or other legitimate commercial products.

The general denied U.S. news media reports that samples of the deadly nerve agent sarin had been discovered. If such materials are found, they will be removed by U.S. forces, the general said. "That is non-negotiable."

Franks said two weeks ago that U.S. forces would investigate suspected sites of weapons of mass destruction but yesterday was the first time he has spoken of their number.

Whether the al-Qaida terrorist network possesses chemical, biological or nuclear weapons has been one of the great mysteries of the 7-week-old conflict. President Bush has said he believes bin Laden wants to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, an adviser to the Pentagon leadership said one of the concerns about placing U.S. troops in the country has focused on the threat of chemical and biological weapons.

A senior Pentagon official said that al-Qaida likely possesses as a "base line" a "crude" chemical capability, such as phosgene or chlorine agents, similar to the lung-searing weapons developed during World War I. Any biological weapon in al-Qaida hands could include a variety of toxins, possibly anthrax, the official said.

If the network had a nuclear weapon, it would likely be a device that does not explode but spreads radiological material that could be lethal. But the official noted that the terrorists do not have any sophisticated delivery systems, such as ballistic missiles, that could be used to strike troops or other targets over long distances.

Rumsfeld, who joined Franks at yesterday's briefing, said the military effort is continuing to destroy Taliban and al-Qaida forces.

"Some of their strongholds are falling," he said. "Their communications are being disrupted. Their leaders are being forced to move about the country to stay alive."

Still, Rumsfeld again cautioned that the fight was not over and said Taliban fighters and terrorists might flee into the countryside, as well as into caves and tunnels, even as cities are falling to rebel forces.

A senior military official said the whereabouts of bin Laden remain unknown.

Franks said the search for both bin Laden and top Taliban leaders is centering on two areas still under enemy control.

One is a stretch of land from the capital, Kabul, to the Khyber Pass on the border with Pakistan that includes the mountain base called Tora Bora. The other is the southern city of Kandahar, the spiritual and military center of the Taliban, and its environs.

While U.S. aircraft bombed in the Kandahar area, Marines continued to expand the southern Afghanistan combat base they established Sunday, as more troops were airlifted in from ships in the Arabian Sea and secret land bases in the region.

Equipped with light armored vehicles, Super Cobra attack helicopters and Humvees capable of firing TOW anti-tank missiles, the Marines now number over 600 at a remote airstrip about 60 miles southwest of Kandahar.

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