- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) Four Afghan security guards for a U.N. mine-clearing program were killed in a U.S. air assault, the United Nations said today, the first independent confirmation of civilian deaths since the airstrikes began.

Meanwhile, the ruling Taliban's envoy to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said that Osama bin Laden, a target of the bombing raids and the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States, survived the bombings.

“He is alive, his health is very good and he is in Afghanistan,'' Mr. Zaeef said in an interview with CNN.

The U.N. mine-clearing agency's office where the four privately hired security guards were killed was close to the Taliban radio transmission tower, a U.S. target. The target was knocked out in a U.S. raid last night.

U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said that the security guards hadn't been warned or told to relocate despite being near the communications tower.

“It was assumed they were safe where they were. Otherwise, they would have been relocated for sure,'' she said, adding that the guards weren't affiliated with the Taliban.

“People need to distinguish between combatants and those innocent civilians who do not bear arms,'' Ms. Bunker told a news conference in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, hours after their deaths.

The United States has emphasized that it is not targeting civilians in the attacks.

The United Nations appealed for the protection of civilians as airstrikes continued for the first time into the daylight hours, bombing the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. The morning attacks followed a second night of U.S. airstrikes that took aim at areas around Kabul and in northern Afghanistan, where a rebel alliance has been fighting Taliban troops.

The Taliban claimed today that dozens of people have been killed in the U.S.-led raids, launched after weeks of fruitless attempts to get Afghanistan's rulers to hand over bin Laden.

“In this freestyle game, Washington is aiming firstly to hunt the sitting Islamic government in Afghanistan and then every committed Muslim in the name of terrorism,'' Zaeef told reporters in Islamabad in comments before the CNN interview was aired.

Zaeef also said the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was safe in the wake of the latest airstrikes. After the first raids late Sunday, an aide to the mullah said he had left his house only 15 minutes before missiles struck the building.

Kabul residents spent another sleepless night amid the roar of explosions and the rattle of anti-aircraft guns. Farmer Adam Khan and his family of five were fleeing Tuesday on a truck piled high with belongings, heading out of the capital to an eastern district to escape more strikes.

They had been sleeping in their basement during the bombardment, he said. “All night the women and children were crying,'' he said. “They were very worried scared.''

Targets in last night's raids included the airport in Kabul and a hill where the radio transmission tower is located, according to the private Afghan Islamic Press agency in Islamabad.

In Washington, the Pentagon said all its planes returned safely.

There was no immediate confirmation that the aircraft carrying out Tuesday morning's raids were part of the U.S.-led coalition, though it appeared likely. Kandahar's location in the south of Afghanistan is far from any airstrips belonging to the anti-Taliban northern opposition, and the rebels' aircraft capability is limited.

The Taliban held the United States responsible for the latest strikes.

“This morning … American aircraft made three strikes, but due to the use of anti-aircraft guns, these aircraft fled,'' Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdul Hai Muttmain told the Afghan Islamic Press. He said there was no immediate word on injuries or damage.

The strike on Kandahar, the seat of the Islamic Taliban militia that rules most of Afghanistan, came shortly after a lone, unidentified jet screamed through the early dawn sky over Kabul, dropping a bomb north of the city near the airport.

Word of the four civilian deaths came initially from doctors at Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, who said four men were killed and a fifth was treated and released. The United Nations later confirmed they were workers at a U.N.-affiliated mine-clearing agency. Afghanistan is one of the world's most heavily mined countries.

Early today, sitting in front of the agency's collapsed two-story building in Kabul's eastern Macroyan neighborhood, Mohammed Afzl wept. His brother was one of the four workers killed, and he waited for bulldozers to clear the rubble and remove the bodies.

“My brother is buried under there,'' he said. “What can we do? Our lives are ruined.''

Mr. Muttmain denied as “absolutely false'' a report by Iran's official news agency that a senior Taliban leader was killed in yesterday's assault. Aviation Minister Akhtar Mohammed Mansour was fine, Muttmain said.

As the raids began, lights went out in Kabul, and Taliban radio ordered people to close blinds, shut off lights and stay indoors.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the fresh bombardment Monday night was accompanied by a renewed air drop of humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian groups have said, however, that such airdrops are much less effective than road deliveries.

In the attacks, five long-range bombers a pair of B-2 stealth bombers flying from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and three B-1B's from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia joined 10 strike planes launched from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. They targeted air defense and other military targets across Afghanistan.

Two U.S. Navy ships, the destroyers USS John Paul Jones and USS McFaul, and one submarine launched a total of 15 Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Britain, which participated in the first wave of assaults Sunday, did not take part in yesterday's follow-up, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said from London.

Before yesterday's attacks began, President Bush vowed to be “relentless'' in fighting terrorism “on all fronts.'' And in an indication the United States might eventually want to expand the military operation, Washington notified the U.N. Security Council that its counterterrorism attacks may be extended beyond Afghanistan.

Before the night assault yesterday, the Taliban released a British journalist to Pakistani authorities. Yvonne Ridley, a reporter for a London newspaper, had been held for 10 days by the Taliban after sneaking into Afghanistan.

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