Payback begins

Herald news services

WASHINGTON – American and British forces unleashed punishing air strikes Sunday against military targets and Osama bin Laden’s training camps inside Afghanistan, aiming at terrorists blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks that murdered thousands in New York and Washington, D.C.

Bin Laden and the leader of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban survived, Taliban officials said.

“We will not waver, we will not tire,” said President Bush, speaking from the White House as Tomahawk cruise missiles and bombs found targets halfway around the globe. “We will not falter, and we will not fail.”

The strikes opened what senior Pentagon and military officials said would be a weeklong, day-and-night bombing campaign, The New York Times reported.

The opening of a sustained campaign dubbed Enduring Freedom, the assault was accompanied by airdrops of thousands of vitamin-enriched food rations for needy civilians – and by a ground-based attack by Afghan forces opposed to the Taliban.

Civilians had been killed in the strikes, according to the Taliban’s ambassador to neighboring Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef.

“There were casualties,” Zaeef said today without specifying how many or where. “Civilians died. It was a very huge attack.”

In Washington, D.C., Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. George Rhynedance said it was “too early to tell” if there were any civilian casualties. “We’re assessing the success of our missions right now,” he said.

In a chilling threat, bin Laden vowed defiantly that “neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine, and not before all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad.” That was an apparent reference to Israel and Saudi Arabia. He spoke in a videotaped statement prepared before the attacks.

Bush gave the final go-ahead for the strike on Saturday, less than four weeks after terrorists flew two hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center twin towers and a third into the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside after an apparent struggle between passengers and terrorists on board.

Signs of heightened security concerns were evident in the United States on Sunday, as officials took Vice President Dick Cheney from his residence to an undisclosed secure location, security was stepped up around the Capitol and government nuclear weapons labs were put on higher alert.

Within hours of the attacks, Bush drew public support from foreign leaders around the world – including a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Congressional leaders chorused their approval, as did the American public.

A crowd of 64,000 cheered the president’s words at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, where the beginning of a professional football game was delayed so the fans could view Bush’s appearance on the big screen scoreboard. Chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.” filled another stadium, this one in Atlanta.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 94 percent of Americans said they supported the U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan.

The initial strike involved a synchronized barrage of 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from American and British ships. Gen. Richard Myers said 15 bombers and 25 strike aircraft, sea and land-based, also were involved. The assault came at 9:30 a.m. PDT – nighttime in Afghanistan, which is 11 1/2hours ahead of U.S. Pacific Daylight Time.

The first attacks also caught – and apparently devastated – a concentration of Taliban tanks and armored vehicles near Mazar-i-Sharif, in the north, where Taliban forces had recently battled a coalition of opposition forces, the officials said.

B-52s dropped at least dozens of 500-pound gravity bombs on al-Qaida terrorist training camps in eastern Afghanistan, one official said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the strikes were designed to eliminate the Taliban’s air defenses and destroy their military aircraft. Afghanistan’s rulers are known to have a small inventory of surface-to-air missiles as well as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

The strikes did not specifically target bin Laden himself, according to Rumsfeld and other officials, because intelligence services are not certain of his location.

Afghan sources in Pakistan said the attack had damaged the Taliban military headquarters and destroyed a radar installation and control tower at the airport in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Smoke could be seen billowing from the high-walled compound of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, these sources added.

About an hour after the first volley of cruise missiles, Taliban forces came under attack from the northern alliance, Afghan opposition forces who fired multiple-rocket launchers from an air base about 25 miles north of Kabul.

A spokesman at the Afghan Embassy in Tajikistan, a nation that does not recognize the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan, said the opposition could make an attempt to enter Kabul, the capital. Asked when, he said perhaps in days or a week.

Bush spoke less than an hour after the first explosion could be heard in Kabul, followed by the sounds of antiaircraft fire. Power went off throughout the city almost immediately after the first of five thunderous blasts.

The president said the military strike would be accompanied by the delivery of food, medicine and other supplies needed to sustain the people of Afghanistan. Pentagon officials said the yellow plastic packets, dropped by C-17 cargo planes, are about the size and weight of a hardcover book. They have a picture of a smiling person eating from a pouch and a stencil of an American flag.

A typical packet contains beans in tomato sauce, biscuits, jam, peanut butter and potatoes in vinaigrette – but no meat and no alcohol. They cost $4.25 each and total 2,200 calories.

“This food is a gift from the United States of America,” says the inscription, in English.

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