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Kandahar attacked; civilian panic reported

Kabul attack
A night-vision camera captures anti-aircraft fire Wednesday night near Kabul.  

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (CNN) -- The Taliban stronghold of Kandahar came under its most intense attack yet Wednesday night, triggering panic among civilians, a CNN source in the city reported.

The capital, Kabul, also came under attack on the fourth night of U.S. airstrikes.

At least 30 loud explosions rocked Kandahar over a two-hour period; military fuel depots, barracks and heavy armor were apparent targets, the source said. The airport terminal was destroyed, the source said.

Civilians in cars and on foot took to the streets in panic, the source said.

The Taliban did not return anti-aircraft fire. One of the local commanders ordered his men not to fire, saying it would be "useless," the source said.

A Taliban source in Kandahar told CNN that Wednesday night's attack involved cruise missiles, not aircraft. There was no confirmation of that from U.S. officials.

Earlier in the day, Taliban anti-aircraft gunners did fire at fighters that flew Kandahar in daylight. Anti-aircraft fire could be seen in the skies over Kabul Wednesday night. A reporter for the Arab TV news network al Jazeera reported explosions were heard coming from the airport.

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In Washington, the Pentagon said the humanitarian aspect of air operations in Afghanistan continued Wednesday, with 35,000 ready-to-eat ration kits dropped by air.

The opposition Northern Alliance, which controls the country's northeast corner, opened artillery fire toward Taliban front lines Wednesday, but there was indication it was launching an offensive.

Some alliance commanders expressed frustration that the U.S. airstrikes were aimed at the Taliban's overall infrastructure, rather than at front-line troops.

The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, made a radio address to the Afghan people Wednesday that included a plea to the Islamic world to come to Afghanistan's assistance.

In Washington, U.S. officials told CNN there would probably be a role for ground forces in Afghanistan soon, with an emphasis on special operations.

One senior official said ground forces would have a "significant role at times but limited in number."

The Pentagon has confirmed that more than 1,000 U.S. troops, including special forces, are on the ground at a base in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistani military sources provided new details about clashes between Taliban fighters and Pakistani border guards in recent days.

Military sources said Taliban fighters were prevented from crossing the border into Pakistan after a 2.5-hour gunbattle. Pakistani officials said they believe the Taliban were trying to cross the border so they could create disturbances in Pakistan.

The Taliban also tried to fly several helicopter gunships over the border but were turned back, the military sources said.

Inside Afghanistan, workers in a U.N.-sponsored effort to clear landmines have been assaulted by the Taliban, according to a U.N. spokeswoman in Islamabad.

"[They] are increasingly being targeted by Taliban authorities. Staff have been beaten in Kabul, in Kandahar and in Jalalabad. A significant number of vehicles have been taken by the Taliban in Kandahar," said U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker.

The United Nations confirmed Tuesday that four mine-removal workers were killed in a U.S. airstrike.

In Islamabad, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, disputed claims by U.S. officials that they have substantially destroyed Taliban air defenses and are in control of the skies over the country. He said the Taliban are still able to defend Afghanistan.

"American planes are flying very high and they are not in the range of the defense system that we have," Zaeef said. "As you know, we do not have the sophisticated and modern defense system. That they have destroyed our defense capability is not true."

He denied claims that Afghan opposition groups fighting the Taliban had made advances.

"That the opposition forces have made advancement is a mere lie. The opposition have no support among the people," Zaeef said. "If the opposition had made any advancement towards us, it would have been reported in the media."

The Taliban said restrictions they had imposed on suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden have been lifted. The Taliban said they had been barring bin Laden from using telephones, fax machines and the Internet.

Zaeef said bin Laden and Mullah Omar are alive and well.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Oman Wednesday to brief the Omani leader, Sultan Qaboos, on plans for the anti-terrorism campaign and to review more than 20,000 British servicemen and women conducting a military exercise in the Persian Gulf country.

In Washington, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson consulted with President Bush Wednesday and told CNN the Western alliance remains strongly behind the military action.

"The NATO alliance is in full solidarity with the United States in finding and punishing those who are responsible for these terrible atrocities that occurred [September 11]," he said.

"We will continue to be both politically on the side of the United States and also to be giving the military assistance that would be expected from the United States' closest allies, friends and colleagues."

-- CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, CNN Correspondents Matthew Chance, Alessio Vinci and John Vause, and CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.


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