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Robertson: Support for Taliban unwavering

Nic Robertson reports from Kandahar, Afghanistan
Nic Robertson reports from Kandahar, Afghanistan  

(CNN) As the U.S.-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan stretches into the fourth week, heavy bombing was reported early Wednesday at Taliban strongholds in Kabul and Kandahar. The Taliban are accusing the United States and Britain of killing civilians.

CNN Correspondent Nic Robertson is part of a team of 26 journalists who have been escorted by the Taliban on a tour around Afghanistan. The Taliban authorities do not allow journalists to roam freely in the regions of the country they control because of what they call security reasons.

Robertson reports from a Taliban-controlled compound on the outskirts of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan.

ROBERTSON: About 11 hours ago we were awakened when a loud explosion went off very close to this compound. It shook the windows and rattled some of the glass out of some windows. But, through today, it's been a relatively quiet day here in Kandahar. At least some fighter activity over the city we've heard, but the Taliban are taking us on a tour of this area and of the city. The Taliban are not allowing us to visit military facilities, but they are taking us to some civilian premises that have been damaged.

We were taken this morning to that place that was bombed, the bomb we heard early this morning. There we heard a man. His house, he said had it been destroyed. It had been reduced to rubble. Quite a large building, the building next door, had also been damaged. We said to him, why was your building targeted? He told us he had no idea. He said it was not a military facility anyway, and that he had no idea why it had been targeted.

The Taliban also took us downtown to a ministry building there. In fact they showed us three ministry buildings that had been completely demolished by bombs, right in the center of town. Now one of those buildings belonged to the ministry for religious police, a very feared ministry, a very harsh police force here in Afghanistan.

Just across the road from here, what the Taliban also wanted to show us was a tailor's store. There we talked to survivors of that bomb blast who said that their shop had been completely demolished and that several people had died inside. The Taliban also took us to various other facilities inside and outside of Kandahar.

CNN: We have been hearing from the Pentagon that the Taliban had been putting some of their military personnel in civilian areas, and that may be an explanation for some of the civilian casualties that have been reported of late. Have you seen any evidence of anything like that since you've been on the ground?

ROBERTSON: Certainly, that is one of the things we have been looking for here. One of the things we did see on our travels today was an armored personnel carrier that had been destroyed, shot out, we were told, from fighter aircraft. That was in a civilian area.

We also went outside of the city and we saw evidence of what the Taliban say is their effort not to confront the United States forces head on, but to disperse their military forces. We saw anti-aircraft guns, armored personnel carriers, and other heavy military equipment out in the countryside, under trees, up against the mountains... dispersed, not congregated in central areas. As far as downtown, and military equipment in our sights downtown, that's not something that we've been able to see.

We have driven around fairly extensively and probably the other thing to note here is that the city appears to be returning to some kind of normality. There is food in the stores, there are plenty of people out in the streets, both this morning and this afternoon, and people, now at least, do not appear to be living in fear. Our staff who have been here for some time are saying that people have been returning to the city now. They say that in the first few weeks that people were very afraid of the bombing, but now they're beginning to return to the city, trying to get some normality back in their lives.

CNN: We've been reporting that while you've been in these Taliban-controlled areas, the Taliban have been controlling where you can go, but not necessarily what you can say while you are there. Have you been able to talk with any of the citizens in these areas to get an idea of how they feel, not just about the bombing campaign, but about the Taliban, or how they feel about the situation they are in right now?

ROBERTSON: Absolutely. In every one of the sites we visit, a huge crowd gathers around us. People are ready to put forward their ideas and views. I think over the years that I've been coming here, what I've noticed on this trip is a degree more perhaps hostility, not toward us, but the way people present the issues. And we've asked those very questions: 'Do you still support the Taliban because you are being bombed because of them?' The answer comes back firmly, 'No, we are behind the Taliban.'

We think America, they say, is making a mistake, they say America was a friend of the Afghans, America had helped the Afghans fight off the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, they said they'd build roads here, dams, and airports here, and that they really didn't understand why the United States was attacking Afghan civilians, that's the way they see it when they see the collateral damage. And they say this is making them support the Taliban more.

Another issue people picked up on with us ... several people have said this to us: "If the United States is after Osama bin Laden, why have no Arabs been killed so far? Why is it we only see around us, injured Afghan and dead Afghan people?'' And this is something that people are putting forward to us very passionately. What comes across here is that people in this city and the people we've talked to so far appear quite passionately, at this stage, behind the Taliban.

CNN: Their feelings over there could be the result of the control that the Taliban has over what they have been allowed to see and hear. What of the Taliban officials that have been guiding you through this area? Do you get a sense that, because they are trying to give you a good propaganda show by taking you just to these civilian areas where there have been some injuries, that there is a sense of some erosion of confidence toward them?

ROBERTSON: No, again, that's a question we have asked, I've asked several Taliban that question. They say, "no". They say that (what people) read of where the Taliban and the Afghan mindset is completely erroneous and wrong. That is one of the reasons, also, they want to bring us into these areas. It's not just to show us the civilian casualties, but also to show us the mindset.

Of course one other thing that one is aware of while being escorted around by the Taliban -- are the people you are talking to being influenced by them? The general sense that we have had here, as a group of 26 journalists, is that people are speaking their minds, they are coming out and speaking quite strongly. And when one person perhaps comes and speaks out against the United States or President Bush, there is a cheer through the crowds.

Generally, the Taliban officials we have talked to say there are no splits (in their ranks) and say that they are strong. They say perhaps the United States has gone about this the wrong way; trying to get rid of Osama bin Laden, there might have been better ways to do it. They say the United States should have tried to build more support and tried to create more divisions here in the country before they launched an air campaign. But the effect on the ground here, now as we've been told at least, is that there is strong support within the Taliban, no cracks there. When we talk to people, one is very aware -- are they being influenced by the Taliban people around us? That does not appear to be the case. One does have to say that.


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