The Times of India Online
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Overnight US strikes leave 20 dead in Kabul
KABUL: American wrath over the worst terrorist atrocities in history was finally unleashed as US and British forces launched air and cruise missile attacks on Taliban targets across Afghanistan.
An onslaught that began after nightfall on Sunday, nearly four weeks after the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, continued throughout the night.
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More than 20 people were killed in Kabul, the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) agency reported. The Pakistan-based agency said that 10 people had died in the Qasabah Khana neighbourhood near Kabul airport, while more than 10 had been killed near the offices of state-run Radio Shariat.
"There is a possibility that the number of deaths is more," AIP said, without specifying whether the victims were civilians or Taliban.
US president George W. Bush said that the strikes' targets were terrorist training camps established by Osama Bin Laden and the military installations of the Taliban regime.
Taliban officials said that Bin Laden and the Islamic militia's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had both survived what US defence officials warned was only a taste of things to come.
Strikes aimed at crippling the Taliban's defences by destroying anti-aircraft batteries, radar facilities and airfields were spread across the country.
In Kabul, anti-aircraft guns blazed into action three times through the night and AIP reported heavy bombardments of the capital's airport.
Bombing was also reported around the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar, where Bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the US, has a home.
Members of the anti-Taliban opposition said that the eastern city of Jalalabad, Farah in the west, Kunduz near the border with Tajikistan, and the strategic northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif, where dozens of US helicopters attacked the airfield, had also been targeted.
US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the strikes had been accompanied by air drops of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan's beleaguered population, millions of whom are vulnerable to starvation after years of war and drought.
The missions, conducted by 15 long-range bombers on a clear night, came together "like a well-oiled machine," said "Woodstock," lead pilot of the B-52 bombers that took part in the raid.
"My crews didn't encounter any threats that we weren't prepared to deal with, and nothing that put us unduly at risk," said the pilot.
Taliban officals described the action as "horrendous terrorist attacks" but denied that they had done any significant damage.
The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said that the militia would not bow to US demands to hand over Bin Laden, a Saudi-born militant who has been sheltered by the Taliban since 1996.
"Such brutal attacks will unify the whole Afghan nation. The Afghan people will rise against this new colonial attempt," Zaeef said.
The long wait for Washington's retaliation for the worst ever attack on its territory ended around 9:00 pm (1630 GMT) when loud explosions across Kabul and abrupt cuts in electricity heralded the first bombing raid.
Jets could be heard flying high over the city as the night sky lit up with explosions and strings of tracer bullets from Taliban anti-aircraft guns placed around the capital and the surrounding hills.
The attacks began just before the imposition of the regular nightly curfew in Kabul, and residents said that there there was no sign of panic among civilians.
Taliban troops were seen moving around the city in trucks and pick-ups, but as the curfew hour arrived, most residents returned indoors after coming out to watch the attack.
In a recorded video message broadcast by the Qatari-based al-Jazeera satellite television network after the strikes, Bin Laden praised the September 11 attacks in the US and said "a group of Muslims" was responsible.
"America has been hit by Allah at its most vulnerable point, destroying, thank God, its most prestigious buildings," Bin Laden said, without directly claiming responsibility for the attacks.
Jubilant opposition forces, poised as close as 50 km north of the capital, fired a barrage of rockets and artillery at Taliban positions and said they were poised to launch an infantry onslaught across the country.
An opposition spokesman, Mohammad Ashraf Nadeem, said that the Northern Alliance's commander, General Abdul Qassim Fahim, had put his troops on standby for an infantry assault on Taliban-held cities.
"We are waiting for orders for General Fahim. The United Front is trying to cut off the Taliban from all sides," he said via satellite phone from the frontlines near Samangan in northern Afghanistan.
Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance's foreign minister, predicted that the Taliban would soon be driven out of the capital, which they have controlled since 1996.
"The Taliban will not be able to resist on the frontlines north of Kabul for more than a few days," he told CNN.
He said that the opposition forces were in constant contact with US officials and would tailor their action on the ground to take maximum advantage of the airstrikes.
Pakistan, the main backer of the Taliban before the devastation in New York and Washington, voiced concern for the innocent civilians of Afghanistan, millions of whom are on the brink of famine due to civil war and drought.
Official sources confirmed that Pakistani airspace had been used in the attacks.
( AFP )