Defense officials: Air operation to last 'several days'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Pentagon officials said Sunday the airstrikes that began just after nightfall in Afghanistan could continue for some time as the United States and Britain seek to soften Taliban air defenses and damage key military infrastructure.
"I would expect this will go on for a few days," a senior Pentagon official told CNN.
The two-pronged attack launched Sunday combines a broad campaign against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terror network with humanitarian air drops.
The campaign struck at several Afghan cities in the dead of night, aiming to take out some of the Taliban's air defense installations, its defense ministry, airport-based command centers, airfields, electrical grids and other energy production facilities.
"The war against terrorism... will use every element of American influence and power," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pledged Sunday afternoon. "The aim is to create conditions for sustained anti-terrorist and humanitarian relief efforts in Afghanistan."
Among the early targets, Rumsfeld said Sunday, were radar installations around Kabul and Kandahar, and the Taliban's estimated fleet of 80 combat aircraft, many believed to be of Soviet early Cold War vintage, including several aging MiG 21 fighters.
Rumsfeld said the U.S.-led assault is intended to "make it increasingly difficult for terrorists to use Afghanistan freely as a base of operations."
"We intend to defeat those who use terrorism and those who house and support them," said Rumsfeld, who spoke shortly after President Bush announced the bombardment in a televised address.
Commanders of the Northern Alliance, the opposition group that holds some 10 percent of Afghan territory and is said to have been making significant gains against the Taliban in the last several days -- said their intelligence sources inside Taliban-controlled areas reported at least seven locations struck by U.S. and British forces, including the airports in Kabul and Kandahar and the Taliban Ministry of Defense in Kabul.
CNN's Kamal Hyder reported a huge explosion at an oil depot at the Herat airport, in western Afghanistan. Other targets were Jalalabad, in the east, and Mazar-e-Sharif and other towns in the north.
"It is important to go after the air defenses of the Taliban, and their aircraft," Rumsfeld said. "We are also targeting the command facilities of terrorist forces."
The United States and Great Britain opened what Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers described as a "sustained" campaign that would not only take down the Taliban's defensive infrastructure, but also to open up opportunities to strike directly at the al Qaeda's training camps and fortresses across Afghanistan's most treacherous mountain terrain.
The mission included bombing runs by U.S. B-2 Stealth bombers flown from the continental United States, as well as B-1 and B-52 long-range bombers from the British air base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, Rumsfeld said.
The bomber force was bolstered by 25 strike aircraft launched from the carriers USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, and about 50 Tomahawk Cruise missiles launched from four U.S. surface ships, a U.S. submarine and a British submarine. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said British aircraft would soon join the campaign. Bush said other allies, including Canada, Australia, Germany and France, have pledged to contribute forces as the operation proceeds.
Taliban Assistant Defense Minister Al Mulah Noor Ali told the Arab news channel Al Jazeera that Taliban forces shot down one U.S. aircraft Sunday, but Rumsfeld denied that claim. He said no U.S. aircraft have been hit by Taliban forces.
Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said the weapons in use Sunday were conventional ordnance. He would not elaborate, though the bombs delivered by the bat-winged B-2 bombers were guided by satellites to their targets. The Pentagon also said several "dumb" bombs were dropped, presumably by the aging, high-payload B-52s.
Airdrops of humanitarian were set to begin shortly, the Pentagon said Sunday evening, discounting earlier reports that the humanitarian effort had commenced.
Packages of food and medicine were set to be expelled by two C-17 transport aircraft, in an attempt, Rumsfeld said early in the afternoon, to get sorely needed supplies to Afghan nationals denied basic necessities by ththe Talibannd al Qaeda, whom he described as a "foreign presence" in Afghanistan.
"To say that these attacks are in any way attacks against Afghanistan or the Afghan people is flat wrong," Rumsfeld said.
The United States planned to drop some 37,000 pre-packaged meals and medicines in the first stages of the operation, he said, though he refused to speculate how much of that might actually reach the people for whom it is intended. Aid packages were also to include leaflets asking people to remain in their villages, and small, transistor radios.
The United States has pledged significant aid to the Afghan people, many of whom have suffered years of war following the 1979 invasion by Soviet forces, and the 12 years of civil war that followed their retreat in 1989.
-- CNN's Ian Christopher McCaleb contributed to this report.
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