Strikes on Kandahar; U.N. reports on bombs, refugees
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Airstrikes resumed Wednesday evening on the Taliban-controlled southern city of Kandahar, after waning in the afternoon, according to the Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera. U.S. fighter jets struck targets around Kabul and the front lines north of the capital as well.
From a village north of the front lines, fighter jets were seen above the mountains where Taliban fighters are entrenched, and bombs were heard exploding. The jets were met with anti-aircraft fire. Plumes of black smoke were seen in the area.
The frontline attacks could soften the Taliban defenses, allowing the opposition Northern Alliance to advance toward Kabul, but a Northern Alliance spokesman said he did not believe the time for that had come.
"It has not reached the level that we will expect a major change in the military situation as far as the front lines are concerned," Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told CNN. "But we are in contact with American authorities, and we are working to coordinate our efforts in that regard."
In Kabul, a correspondent for Al Jazeera reported morning bombing raids appeared to target Taliban military positions, but said the impact also shook a residential area. "Ten houses and 10 shops were brought down," reported Taysseer Allouni. "Many people were injured, including two children, small children."
In Kandahar, Al Jazeera's Yousseff Al-Shouli reported hearing planes and helicopters but said there was no military bombardment overnight. The city, the spiritual headquarters of the Taliban regime, was the scene of heavy strikes Tuesday, aimed primarily at fuel depots.
At a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said U.S. strikes on Tuesday hit targets near Mazar-e Sharif, Kabul, Konduz and Herat. The targets, he said, included terrorist camps and forces, Taliban command and control centers, Taliban forces in the field and at garrisons like armor, vehicle, maintenance and storage facilities.
About 90 aircraft were involved, including 75 carrier-based aircraft, 10 long-range bombers and land-based tactical aircraft, including AC-130 gunships, he said.
Stufflebeem also said the U.S. had obtained information that the Taliban "may intend" to poison humanitarian food relief and blame any subsequent deaths on the U.S.
He said attempts will be made to warn Afghan people to be careful in accepting any food aid that comes through the Taliban and also said any Taliban claims that the United States would poison food intended for Afghan civilians are "categorically false."
Stufflebeem said reports from the ground in Afghanistan say the Taliban are moving troops and equipment into residential neighborhoods and mosques to avoid the U.S. bombing campaign. He said the U.S. would find other ways to get at "those who might cowardly decide to hide in residential neighborhoods."
Asked for his assessment of the Taliban as the bombing campaign approaches its third week, Stufflebeem said the Taliban have proven to be "tough warriors."
"I am a bit surprised at how doggedly they're hanging on to power," he said. "For [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar to not see the inevitability of what will happen surprises me. We are prepared to take however long is required to bring the Taliban down."
U.N. worried about unexploded munitions
The United Nations, meanwhile, detailed the effects of the U.S. strikes on the Afghan civilian population, saying about 70 percent of the western city of Herat -- with a population of 1 million -- has fled in fear.
U.N. officials also said the United States needs to explain to aid workers how to disarm the unexploded munitions on the ground, which pose a deadly hazard to civilians.
U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said the village of Shakar Qala, about two miles northeast of Herat, was hit in the U.S.-led attack on the city Monday night. She said the village is near a military camp, which U.S. officials have said was a target.
"The strike included air-delivered submunitions which are carried in cluster bombs," Bunker said. "On Tuesday morning, a group of people came from the village to the mine action center in Herat. They told the mine action center that many bomblets were littering their village and that they were afraid and could not leave their homes."
The highly combustible "bomblets" are the size of a soda can, U.N. officials said, and are used against personnel and vehicles. The small charge can puncture 5 inches of steel and explodes into hundreds of pieces of shrapnel, flying at the speed of a bullet.
As many as 200 bomblets are contained in a cluster bomb, U.N. officials said, and about 10 percent of them fail to explode when they hit the ground.
U.N. workers were placing sandbags over unexploded bomblets because they don't yet know how to disarm them, said Dan Kelly, manager of the U.N. Mine Action Program. He said the United Nations "urgently" needs information about the types of bombs being dropped so that mine workers can be trained to deal with them.
Claims of civilian casualties
In the village of Chowker Korez, 62 miles northwest of Kandahar, residents said Tuesday that dozens of people were killed and more than 20 wounded in an attack by U.S. forces.
The claims could not be independently verified. A CNN Afghan crew drove to the village Wednesday and reported it was heavily damaged. They said they saw one unexploded bomb.
CNN staff members who went to a Kandahar hospital said they saw several bodies wrapped in white body bags as well as a number of wounded people being treated. Most of the people were Kuchis, nomads who often travel around Afghanistan in convoys.
Asked about the claims, Stufflebeem said "we do not have any factual reports" about what happened in the village.
The relatives reported the village was bombed Monday night. They said they then heard two military aircraft, helicopters and machine-gun fire. Residents of a nearby village said they also heard explosions. Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said Tuesday a village had been bombed but gave no other details.
Traveling in Bahrain, U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, the head of U.S. Central Command and in charge of the Afghan campaign's daily operations, said the military is always concerned about the possibility of civilian casualties.
"What we tried to do was be absolutely honest with the people in this region and the people in our own country in describing where we had made mistakes," he said.
He also said the Taliban were exaggerating civilian casualties in Afghanistan and hampering the U.S. military's humanitarian relief operations. Franks said his week-long trip through the region was intended to coordinate the military and humanitarian activities going on in Afghanistan.
Crafting a new Afghan government
As the bombing campaign continued in Kabul, anti-Taliban Afghan leaders were meeting in Peshawar, Pakistan, to craft a plan for a transition of government should the Taliban fall in the midst of the airstrikes.
Delegates endorsed a political plan calling for an Afghan leadership that has the support of a majority of Afghans. The political system would represent all walks of Afghan life, they said, and would conform to Islam and Sharia, or Islamic law.
The plan encourages the cooperation of those Taliban who agree to the new government's ideas on peace and the implementation of a broad-based political system. The roughly 800 delegates to the conference included exiled Afghan military leaders, spiritual leader, and community leaders.
Abdullah, of the Northern Alliance, said the ideal scenario would involve such a political framework before opposition troops could enter Kabul.
"But if the situation, the military situation involves attacks that requires us to enter Kabul, we will do it," he said, "because we don't want to see a political vacuum, or military or security vacuum."