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Russia sending tanks to aid anti-Taliban forces

(CNN) -- With the U.S.-led war on terrorism widening, CNN has learned that Russia is sending 40 T-55 tanks and 100 other armored vehicles to aid the rebel Northern Alliance in its fight against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime.

As word of the Russian development came from U.S. officials Thursday, fresh explosions rocked the airport in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in what appeared to be U.S.-led cruise missile strikes. And Britain prepared to commit its commandos to action on the ground.

In Kandahar, a CNN crew said explosions at the airport about 30 kilometers (18 miles) south of the city lit up the nighttime sky. The crew said the attacks appeared to be cruise missile strikes on the airport, which has been hit throughout the air campaign.

U.S.-led bombing raids in and around Kandahar earlier struck a fuel-storage facility northeast of the city. The CNN crew said it saw what looked like secondary explosions coming from the airstrikes.

U.S. warplanes also struck more Taliban targets north of Kabul, and fierce ground battles raged between the Northern Alliance and Taliban forces.

It was the first time in five days of strikes on Taliban positions near Bagram Air Base in which targets included sites on the mountain range opposite the base and the road leading southward to Kabul, said CNN's Chris Burns.

Taliban fighters have dug in at the base of the Safi Mountains, where they are launching mortars and rockets into nearby villages. Black smoke billowed from the mountainside, where at least five bombs were dropped Thursday.

There also were strikes near Mazar-e Sharif northwest of Kabul, which the Northern Alliance considers a key point in its advance toward the capital city.

The U.S. warplanes were flying higher because of anti-aircraft fire from the Taliban. At least one surface-to-air missile was launched but missed its target. At one point, under cover of the air attacks, observers saw two Northern Alliance tanks headed closer to the Taliban front line north of the capital city.

The Northern Alliance, heavily outgunned and outmanned by the Taliban, said it wouldn't launch an offensive until the Taliban is weakened. There were mortar and machine gun exchanges between the two groups Thursday. The tanks from Russia could significantly improve the rebels' ability to wage war on the Taliban.

In another significant development, British Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram is preparing to announce the deployment of British ground troops to help with the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom. The announcement is to be made during a speech to the House of Commons at 11 a.m. (6 a.m. EDT) Friday.

The forces are expected to include elite mountain and winter warfare troops of the Royal Marines currently on exercises in Oman, according to the British Press Association. More than 23,000 British troops have been in Oman taking part in Swift Sword Two, a joint exercise with their Oman counterparts.

Britain has been helping with the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan since it began more than three weeks ago, with a British submarine firing cruise missiles, refueling planes helping American jets and reconnaissance planes aiding surveillance missions.

In neighboring Pakistan, a conference of Afghan community leaders drew up a plan for a transition government to be used if and when the Taliban regime falls. The 1,500 leaders, meeting in Peshawar, urged the United States and Afghanistan to end their hostilities.

In Islamabad, Pakistan, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf met to discuss Afghanistan and other issues.

"Pakistan remains very grateful to Saudi Arabia for all its support that they've always provided to Pakistan in the past, and we certainly look forward for the future in all areas where it is political or economic, total collaboration between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia," Musharraf said.

Al-Faisal added, "Solidarity with Pakistan is the duty of every Muslim, especially at this critical hour."

The Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, Ali Awadth Asseri, also said the Taliban is crumbling under the weight of the U.S. campaign.

"I don't think the Taliban is still running the country at this time, to be honest with you," he told CNN. "Their power ... is on the verge of coming to an end."

Taliban denies U.S. allegation over food poisoning

Also on Thursday, Taliban Deputy Ambassador to Pakistan Suhail Shaheen rejected U.S. allegations that the Taliban "may intend" to poison food being brought into Afghanistan for humanitarian relief and blame it on the Americans, saying the Taliban would never poison their people.

"America would never poison its people, so why say the Taliban would poison theirs?" he said.

On Wednesday, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said the Pentagon had obtained information that the Taliban might poison food intended for Afghan civilians and blame the United States for any resulting deaths. Any Taliban claims that the United States would poison food intended for Afghan civilians are "categorically false," he said, adding that attempts will be made to warn the Afghan people to be careful in accepting any food aid that comes through the Taliban.

Shaheen said they will be sending humanitarian aid packages for testing in laboratories.

"The United States is using humanitarian aid as part of its military strategy to kill people," Shaheen said. "The food packages are no different (from) bombs."


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