U.S. warplanes again hammer Taliban positions
Arab network reports on bin Laden letter criticizing Pakistan
MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan (CNN) -- As U.S. jets pounded Taliban troop positions Thursday, the Arab television network Al Jazeera reported that it had received a letter from Osama bin Laden condemning Pakistan's support of the bombing and calling for Muslims to unite.
"The Pakistani government is now standing beneath the Christian banner," read the letter, which was written in Arabic. The authenticity of the letter could not be independently verified.
The letter, according to Al Jazeera, says President Bush is at the head of that Christian banner and urges Pakistani Muslims to defend against a Christian crusade.
It also calls for Muslims worldwide to unite, saying the killing of Muslims by U.S. forces is dividing the world into two communities: those under Bush and those under the Muslim banner.
Although there has been no confirmation that the letter -- hand-delivered to the network's office in the Afghanistan capital, Kabul -- is authentic, the network, which has frequently received other communications from bin Laden, said the signature appears to be bin Laden's.
The network, based in Qatar and broadcast throughout the Arab world, has been a favored outlet for bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The Pakistani government has said it supports the U.S.-led campaign against terror and has allowed the United States limited use of its airspace and some of its military bases. The government's position has been the focus of protests from Taliban supporters in Pakistan. In an effort to crack down on civil unrest, the government ordered new measures Wednesday that ban rallies and restrict freedom of assembly.
U.S. officials have repeatedly said the airstrikes against Afghanistan were launched because the country's ruling Taliban regime refused to hand over suspected terrorist bin Laden, who they believe was behind the terror attacks against the United States that killed nearly 5,000 people. The United States also has demanded that the Taliban surrender members of bin Laden's terror network, al Qaeda.
Rumsfeld defends use of cluster bombs
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, defended the use of cluster bombs during airstrikes. International aid organizations have called on the United States to stop using the weapon in Afghanistan.
A cluster bomb scatters hundreds of smaller "bomblets" over a wide area. The bomblets also happen to be the same color yellow as the humanitarian rations that U.S. planes are dropping to Afghan civilians. Aid organizations fear that civilian casualties will result from people mistakenly picking up an unexploded cluster bomblet.
The color of future food packets will be changed to blue, Myers said, adding it was "unfortunate" that the color was the same. He said leaflets are being dropped that explain to Afghan civilians the difference between the two, spelling out which ones to pick up and which ones to avoid.
Myers said the Pentagon is matching specific weapons with specific targets and in some cases, that means U.S. planes will drop cluster bombs.
"We understand the impact of those," he said. "I would take you back to September 11; we also understand the impact of that."
Rumsfeld added that cluster bombs are "being used on frontline al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them is why we're using them, to be perfectly blunt."
The Pentagon also has said military planners are doing everything they can to minimize civilian casualties in the airstrikes.
U.S. not withholding aid from Northern Alliance
At a news conference in Islamabad, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, said Taliban troops had repulsed three attacks by the Northern Alliance. He said the attacks were launched with the help of U.S. air support.
The Northern Alliance said it had not launched any advance but did say it is moving its elite troops into the area around Mazar-e Sharif.
U.S. jets flew 67 sorties over Afghanistan on Wednesday, targeting caves and tunnels along with Taliban armor and troops, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said in Washington.
It has been difficult to quantify the impact of the bombing, she said, but Pentagon officials believe they are making progress against Taliban targets near Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif.
Rumsfeld said allegations that the United States withheld aid to the Northern Alliance because it wanted a more politically acceptable group to take the Afghan capital of Kabul were "absolutely false."
The alliance has repeatedly said it needs more support from U.S. forces to overcome Taliban troops on the ground. Rumsfeld acknowledged that the alliance may feel it has not received enough support but added: "You don't just start dropping ammunition out of planes to people you don't have any relationship with.".
More U.S. troops are going into northern Afghanistan to act as liaisons with Northern Alliance forces, Rumsfeld said, adding that the weather -- and, in one case, ground fire -- had previously prevented more teams from landing.
Without saying how many U.S. troops are on the ground, Rumsfeld said he would like to see the number of teams "go up three or four times" from what they are now. And when they do, he said, the bombing campaign will intensify even more.
Taliban allege U.S. bombing non-military targets
Zaeef said 70 to 80 air raids had been launched by the United States on Taliban front lines north of Kabul. He also said 21 civilians were killed Wednesday and a number of others injured. Zaeef said a B-52 strike had hit a clinic near Kandahar, wounding patients and staff.
Asked about the report, Clarke said, "It was a terrorist target, and we hit what we intended to hit."
CNN's Nic Robertson was among 26 journalists who were escorted by the Taliban to a village 36 miles north of Kandahar. He saw scenes of devastation -- mud houses turned into rubble, fragments of bombs and missiles, strewn belongings, dead livestock and damaged cars.
In a statement, Zaeef said it was now clear that the U.S. strikes were not against military targets. "It is now evident that the strikes are not against the so-called terrorism but against Islam and against the Islamic system of life," he said.
Rumsfeld responded to Zaeef's allegations by saying the Taliban are putting anti-aircraft batteries on top of buildings in residential areas in hopes of the U.S. bombing the batteries and causing civilian casualties the Taliban can then display to the media.
The defense secretary also said the Pentagon knows that the Taliban are "seizing and beating" workers for international aid groups and other nongovernmental organizations. And while concerns over the bombing hampering international relief efforts are widely reported in the media, he said international organizations are afraid to report the Taliban's activities to the media.
"And the answer is, it's very simple: The Taliban will shoot their people if they do. So they keep their mouths closed," he said.
The Taliban told reporters that a dam capable of generating 150,000 kilowatts of power had also been bombed.
Asked if the Taliban were welcoming volunteers who have lined up at the Pakistan border saying they want to help the Taliban fight, Zaeef said the volunteers weren't needed yet. He said, however, that the Taliban have allowed some volunteers to cross the border.
Reports from the region indicated that as many as 1,000 volunteers had crossed into Afghanistan.
Alliance sending reinforcements
Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance defense minister, says the alliance is sending in troop reinforcements north of Kabul that will enable them to reach their highest level of preparedness "in a few days' time."
He said if the front lines north of Kabul are struck intensely by the U.S.-led coalition for a number of days, the alliance could make a breakthrough.
Meanwhile, in Ankara, Turkey, the Turkish Cabinet approved the deployment of troops to northern Afghanistan. Turkey was expected to dispatch a 90-member special forces team to train Northern Alliance forces.
Asked about the report, Zaeef said that any country that sends troops to aid the United States and the Northern Alliance is an enemy of Afghanistan.
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