WORLD EXCLUSIVE: PM talks to The Mirror

By Paul Starling, Welsh Political Editor 

TONY Blair met his terror war critics head-on yesterday, saying: "We have no choice."

The Prime Minister said: "We must hound down bin Laden, obliterate his terrorist network, bring him to justice, and end this threat.

"We will do that, of that, I am completely confident."

During a visit to Cardiff, Mr Blair gave an exclusive interview to The Mirror:

Q PM, we are four weeks into the bombing, are you confident that it is being effective in destabilising the Taliban? And what is the purpose of continued bombing?

A The bombing is absolutely targeted. One of the reasons we delayed taking action was to make sure that when we took action the bombing was targeted on military installations and infrastructure, on Taliban troops and camps.

Inevitably, in any bombing campaign such as this, there will be things that don't go right. The vast majority of the bombs do reach their target.

It is also important people realise that the Taliban quite deliberately move military supplies alongside Red Cross depots and innocent civilians. The difference between ourselves and bin Laden is that we do everything we can to minimise civilian casualties, he does everything to maximise them.

Q Are you saying that he is deliberately using civilians in Afghanistan as shields, alongside military targets, and is prepared to sacrifice innocent Afghans?

A The Taliban do quite deliberately make sure that they have their military hardware in areas where there are bound to be difficulties to bomb.

The bombing campaign is very targeted and is not carpet- bombing at all and the reason for that is perfectly simple, we need total control of the airspace so that we can move around freely and gather intelligence of what is happening in Afghanistan.

It is important to also realise that all of the terrorist training camps have been obliterated. That is not to say that terrorists are not hiding in places, but the training installations have gone.

Q OK you win the airspace, but what is the next stage as we move into winter?

A The next stage is to use ground operations as and when necessary. It is to build up those anti-Taliban elements like the Northern Alliance and to assist them. And it is also to make sure that the political and diplomatic moves inside and outside Afghanistan are putting together the right coalition for the post- Taliban regime.

Q Can we expect to see troops on Afghan soil, in large numbers, before the winter and throughout the winter?

A One of the biggest difficulties in any military action like this is that it is really not sensible for ministers to discuss what troops we may put where, when, how, and what missions they will be given.

It is very difficult, I understand people would like to know answers to these questions, exactly how many troops are you going to put in, exactly when, exactly what are they going to do. People should be assured we have a strategy and a plan, but it's not something that would be sensible to announce publicly to the Taliban.

Q Are you confident, Prime Minister, that where Osama bin Laden is going to be identified, he is going to be hunted down and brought to international justice?

A Yes, I am confident.

Q You have absolutely no doubt that the mass murderer Osama bin Laden will be caught and brought to justice?

A I am completely confident we will get the mass murderer Osama bin Laden, of that I have absolutely no doubt. And one of the reasons why we need to remove the Taliban regime is because they know where he is and they are not yielding him up.

When people say why are you going against this regime, why are you engaging in this campaign, we are engaging in it because the Taliban regime are sheltering bin Laden. They know where he is, they are giving him support, and his network carried out those attacks on New York.

You know I sometimes wonder when people say why are you doing all this, I think when Osama bin Laden without warning murdered 6,000 innocent people in cold blood, in downtown New York in the middle of the day, and when he and his terrorist network say they will do it again and again, the idea that the civilised world can stand around and say well we're not going to do anything about that, it's absurd.

Many, many thousands more are now being threatened. So when people say do something else, then I say - what?

Q You also seem to be saying that the first target of this strategic action is to destabilise and replace the Taliban and by doing that it isolates Osama bin Laden. Is the principle, first target the Taliban?

A Our target the whole time is to close down the terrorist network in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban regime stand between us and that objective, then we have to remove them. If they choose - as they have done so far at least - to side with bin Laden.

Q What do you say to those who say that there will be a humanitarian disaster and that therefore the bombing has to stop?

A That is a perfectly understandable concern, and I make two points. First, the Taliban were ruling over a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan before September 11. More than four million people were already on the move, it just wasn't in the news.

Secondly, it is very important that the world knows that it is not the bombing which is stopping the food convoys getting to the refugees of Afghanistan, the problem is that the Taliban are stopping, disrupting and threatening those convoys.

I know that to be true, and it is the very clear message of the The World Food Programme. The Taliban could stop that if they wanted to, but they don't.

Q In terms of winning the propaganda war, would it not be sensible for you to call on the Taliban government to allow people in Afghanistan to make their way to safe havens so you could then start a bombardment of food and shelter.

If the Taliban agreed with it, then those opposed to them would go too. If they disagreed, the world would see the Taliban had no intention of protecting innnocent Afghans?

A That is a very interesting point. Because it is the UN aid agencies which deal with this issue, it is not for us to do it for them. That is precisely what they are trying to get the Taliban regime to do, which is to co-operate with the food convoys.

It is very important that the world knows that it is not the bombing which is stopping food and other humanitarian supplies getting to the refugees, it is the Taliban. They have told the humanitarian aid organisations that anyone who has anything to do with any outside agency will be treated as traitors by the forces of the Taliban.

Q You say you understand why there may be calls for an end to the bombing?

A I do, I completely understand why people demand answers to why the bombing, why military action, why confront this evil. The answer is we have no choice. We must hound down bin Laden, obliterate his terrorist network, bring him to justice, and end this threat. We will do that, of that, I am completely confident.

Q Your message to the Taliban?

A My message to the Taliban regime is, you've chosen to side with terrorism, you must face the consequences of that, but whatever happens in the conflict you should be co-operating with the UN in order to allow the food convoys to get through to people who need it.

Q And if you don't, then the world will see you for what you are?

A Exactly. Exactly.