U.S. airstrikes slam multiple Afghan targets
By Ian Christopher McCaleb
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. air action continued for a fifth straight day over Afghanistan, as several bombers, supplemented by carrier-based fighter aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missile launches, struck at multiple targets, in attacks described by eyewitnesses as the fiercest yet of the young campaign.
Fierce evening raids on the Afghan capital, Kabul, were reported by sources on the ground just before noon Eastern Time (after 8 p.m. locally). Night scope camera equipment in a stationary position on the ground in Kabul showed steady, regular and violent explosions just outside the city lasting for several minutes.
A correspondent for the Qatari television news channel al-Jazeera reported large numbers of Kabul's civilians opted to flee after witnessing the ferocity of Thursday's attacks, and said an influential radio station controlled by Afghanistan's ruling Islamic fundamentalist Taliban had ceased broadcasts. Footage on al-Jazeera shot during the day showed a U.S. F-14 Tomcat fighter slicing through the skies above Kabul, unchallenged.
The eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad was also reported hit Thursday.
The al-Jazeera correspondent, Tayseer Allouni, said military installations, airports and radio transmitters were the likely targets of the raid around Kabul. Information disclosed by the Pentagon in Washington seemed to bear that report out, as the U.S. Department of Defense unveiled photographs Thursday of a Kabul radio transmitter it said was destroyed from the air.
Marine Corps Major Gen. Henry Osman, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in an afternoon briefing that the "Kabul radio station" depicted in the photograph was damaged, and added that the United States still believes five days of round-the-clock air raids have resulted in a continued "85 percent success rate."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers have reported an 85 percent rate of success on Tuesday, three days into the air campaign.
"The strikes have been really successful, but have we degraded everything at this point? Of course not," Osman said. "We have made some good headway."
"I would say 85 percent still stands," Osman added, saying that the United States continues to focus on strategic assets of the Taliban and the al Qaeda organization, including "air defense, command and control, airfields and Taliban troop targets."
The Pentagon also took the wraps off two more "before and after" photo sets, one showing a second raid on a surface-to-air missile site near Kandahar that took out missile installations missed the first time around, and another showing the destruction of several aging MiG 21 fighter aircraft and a large transport parked on a Herat airstrip.
The raid on the SAM site was also depicted in the first gun camera film release of the operation, shown at the Pentagon Thursday.
"We have tried very hard to ensure that all of our targeting is against military targets," Osman said.
Speaking prior to a meeting of President Bush's Cabinet, Rumsfeld told reporters that the aim of current operations is still to take out Taliban defensive infrastructure, hit Taliban units on the ground, and take out underground bunkers occupied by Taliban personnel and al Qaeda terrorists.
That aim is being achieved, the defense chief said, with the use of 5,000 pound, laser-guided "bunker buster" bombs, which burrow 20 feet into the ground above their targets before detonating.
"A lot of countries," Rumsfeld said, "have done a lot of digging underground. That makes it a much more complicated task when dealing with targets." U.S. planners who have found areas within Afghanistan where there are "external indications of underground activity," he said, have directed bombing crews to those areas.
In addition, Rumsfeld hinted, the sites of underground bunkers may have been divulged by "various sources" on the ground.
One such bomb, he said, connected with something substantial underground, triggering explosions for several hours after the projectile hit its target.
In his later briefing, Osman said no bomb damage assessment data was yet available from the laser-guided bomb strikes.
Rumsfeld reacted angrily Thursday afternoon to Taliban accusations that the United States was deliberately targeting civilians. The Taliban envoy to Pakistan had suggested early in the day that 200 civilians had been killed during the airstrikes.
Rumsfeld repeated that the United States and Britain, which has contributed occasional Tomahawks launched from submarines, were targeting only militarily significant targets. That said, Rumsfeld added he was regretful that the loss of innocent life in such an operation was unavoidable.
"When one is engaged in military operations, there is going to be an unintended loss of life," he said. "That has always been the case (and) will also be the case in this instance. We regret the loss of life."
But, he added, the Taliban regime, whom the United States has classified as a notorious abuser of the civilian population it is charged with protecting, had no room to make such accusations.
"It comes with ill grace for the Taliban to suggest we are doing what they have practiced and made a livelihood out of," Rumsfeld said.
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