By Muhammad Sadik, Arab News Staff
KABUL/WASHINGTON, 23 October — The war in Afghanistan was marked by terror and tragedy yesterday when a hospital in the western city of Herat was bombed by US war planes. As many as 100 people — doctors, nurses and their patients — were said to have been blown to pieces along with the building itself, raising the civilian toll in the US airstrikes to over a thousand. Taleban Ambassador to Pakistan, Mulla Abdul Salam Zaeef, told a press conference in Islamabad: “It is now clear that American planes are intentionally targeting the Afghan people.”
Taleban Information Ministry official Abdul Hanan Hemat in Kabul claimed yesterday that US forces were using chemical and biological weapons in their airstrikes.
While the US Defense Department said it could not immediately confirm or deny the Taleban charge that American warplanes had bombed the hospital in the largest city in western Afghanistan, it categorically denied the charges that chemical and biological weapons were being used.
“Today, in my contact with doctors in Herat and Kandahar, they told me that they have found signs that Americans are using biological and chemical weapons in their attacks,” Hemat nevertheless insisted. “The effects are transparent on the wounded. A state of being poisoned is one of them.”
Hemat once again dismissed US claims that it had inflicted serious damage on the Taleban’s military infrastructure and Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.
“The US attacks might have had some effect but not more than 10 percent of our capability has been destroyed,” Hemat told AFP, and added that Taleban troops had been barely touched by the attacks. He did admit some damage to military buildings and the loss of two ammunition depots in Kabul and one in Kandahar. A fuel depot, he conceded, had also been hit.
“After the first attack we knew what to expect and our people have been moving to safer places.”
Regarding Bin Laden, he was to the point: “No damage has been inflicted on Osama and his Mujahedeen friends. They have very strong centers and bases in secret locations and the US is not able to identify them.”
The Taleban’s claim to have been left largely unscathed by the US attacks came after the chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, said US forces had taken out Taleban air defenses.
“We’ve hit a lot of their military facilities, their tanks, their artillery, their vehicle support facilities, and some troop concentrations,” Myers said in Washington on Sunday.
“And Al-Qaeda, we’ve hit a lot of their training camps, so they won’t be doing any training in the near future in Afghanistan.”
Qari Abdullah, Taleban’s director of security and intelligence, said that Osama Bin Laden had told Mulla Omar that he would not carry out attacks against any foreign country and that his activities would be restricted to fighting US forces within Afghanistan.
The Taleban said yesterday that it had discovered the wreckage of two US helicopters — one it claimed was shot down by its fighters on Sunday, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) agency reported. The other helicopter was hit by Taleban during a raid by US troops on Kandahar, according to the militia claim. US authorities have dismissed the claims saying no helicopter was hit. The only chopper crashed in Pakistan after the ground operation early Saturday was due to an accident.
A Taleban spokesmen told AIP the wreckage of the downed helicopter was located in Khwaja Malik village in Baba Sahib hills near Kandahar city, while the other was found in Helmand.
“Yesterday, a crashed helicopter was found in the Registan area of Helmand province on the border with (Pakistan’s) Balochistan,” Education Minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi also told Reuters.
“It is most probably an American one. Two more helicopters had come to take away the crashed one, but due to firing they could not land and escaped,” he said. “We don’t know more details and how many people were on board or about their fate now.”
The Al-Jazeera yesterday showed footage of Taleban fighters posing in front of the wreckage which had the word “Pennsylvania” written on it.
He said there were traces of blood on the helicopter, but added that the crew members were missing. Tires and rotors of the helicopter were found at the site. Muttaqi said the deployment of Taleban forces and weapons across the country to counter attacks by US commandos was 60 percent complete.
“We have been deploying them all over the country. Sixty percent of that work has been completed,” he told AFP.
In Islamabad Ambassador Zaeef read out from a written statement which said: “We are telling the Bush administration and all those who are siding with them in this genocide that killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan is a terrorist act as (like) that of New York,”
It said: “The hands of Bush and its administration are stained with the blood of innocent Afghan people. Superpower does not mean killing people with impunity.”
Zaeef warned that even United Nations-led peace forces would be attacked if deployed in Afghanistan.
“We will fight anyone who comes to Afghanistan. It makes no difference whether they are UN or US forces,” said the ambassador.
He rejected that Afghanistan’s northern Mazar-e-Sharif town was slipping out of Taleban’s hands and claimed that the ruling militia has killed 90 opposition forces and arrested 72 others after they mounted attacks to gain control of Mazar, capital of Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province.
In the continuing airstrikes yesterday, US fighter jets staged their third raid on Taleban front-lines north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
Two jets — possibly F-16s — circled several times over the front-lines, and were seen dropping at least three bombs at 4:20 p.m. (1150 GMT) local time on Taleban posts around 45 kilometers north of the capital. The bombs struck Taleban positions near a main junction situated on one of the two parallel roads that lead north of Kabul.
A lone US helicopter gunship also pounded a location in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province close to the border with Pakistan, the AIP reported. The helicopter raided the eastern face of Shamshad mountain, south of Torkham, according to AIP. That side of the hill is near the Pakistani border.
The US fighter jets also mistakenly fired on opposition posts during their third raid on Taleban front-lines north of the Afghan capital Kabul, witnesses said. Four photographers were in an opposition post when two F-16’s screamed overhead. They said they saw at least two bombs land near opposition posts and another bomb hit a Taleban-controlled area near Qalai Nasru, west of Bagram air base and situated some 45 km north of Kabul.
Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that Libya was the first country, which called for the arrest of Bin Laden in 1988 after his alleged involvement in the killings of Germans and Libyans.
In another development, US special forces linked up with Afghan troops yesterday in an offensive against Taleban positions in the north after heavy US bombing softened the Taleban’s front line, resistance sources said.
Muhammad Ashraf Nadeem, a spokesman for opposition commander Atta Muhammad, told AFP US jets had been pounding the Taleban front line in the Dara-e-Souf valley, near the border with Balkh province, throughout the day.
Nadeem said a team of 20 US special forces troops were with the Northern Alliance opposition, “gathering intelligence” during the attack which advanced 20 kilometers into Balkh province following the airstrikes.
The AIP quoted Mulla Muhammad Omar as saying yesterday that with God’s help, the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan would be defeated. Omar issued the statement from an unknown location near Kandahar, expressing his condolences for those killed in US-led air raids or during anti-American protests around the world, AIP said. Omar also lashed out at US President George W. Bush, saying his war on terrorism was a war on Islam and Muslims.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said yesterday that he and others were still weighing options for a peacekeeping force to restore and keep order in Afghanistan if and when the Taleban militia were ousted.
In addition, Powell played down the notion that a massive reconstruction program on the order of the Marshall Plan, which aided Europe in recovering from World War II, would be necessary to rehabilitate Afghanistan. Powell denied there was a fight between the United States and Europe and the United Nations on the composition of a possible peacekeeping team but did say there was a spirited debate going on about what would be best for Afghanistan.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the United States is ready for Northern Alliance forces to move north and south against the Taleban, confirming that US air strikes were hitting front line Taleban positions north of Kabul.
“Are we now ready to allow the forces to move? We have been ready and we certainly are ready to have the alliance forces move both north and south,” he told a Pentagon press conference.
Britain, meanwhile, said yesterday its troops were ready to move into Afghanistan “at very short notice” and warned that swift action might be needed to secure the country if its Taleban leadership collapsed.
In another development, the Taleban have ended their occupation of a United Nations office in northern Afghanistan after their supreme leader issued a decree ordering the return of looted assets of international aid agencies, a UN official said. Omar issued the edict instructing his followers to ensure the speedy return of looted assets in northern Mazar-e-Sharif, Hasan Ferdous, a spokesman for the UNOCHA, told a news conference.