- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

U.S. warplanes struck a convoy of vehicles in Afghanistan carrying leaders of the ousted Taliban militia, killing several, the Pentagon said yesterday.
"It was a large convoy, and there were a lot of people killed and a lot of vehicles destroyed," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
A U.S. military spokesman disputed an Islamic press agency report saying the strike killed tribal leaders on their way to Kabul for an inauguration ceremony for the new Afghan government.
U.S. AC-130 gunships and Navy jets bombed the convoy of up to 12 vehicles some 24 miles west of Khost near the town of Karezgay in eastern Afghanistan.
A second bombing strike targeted the leadership compound from where the convoy departed. That attack took place about 22 miles west of Khost near Asmani, U.S. Central Command spokesman Maj. Brad Lowell said.
Maj. Lowell took issue with the Islamic press agency dispatch from Pakistan that said the strike on the convoy killed Afghan tribal leaders.
"We've identified the target as Taliban leadership," Maj. Lowell said. "Clearly, this was a military target."
A Pakistani news agency said 65 persons were killed in the strike on the convoy.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the fighting in Afghanistan has shifted from aerial strikes to hunting caves and tunnels for al Qaeda terrorists or information about their operations.
Afghan eastern alliance forces, doing most of the cave hunting with the support of about 80 U.S. Special Forces troops, have encountered some firefights. "Certainly, there have been dust-ups," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
U.S. forces, backed by intelligence and surveillance equipment, are hunting for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Gen. Peter Pace, deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he does not know whether bin Laden was killed in earlier bombing of cave complexes in Tora Bora.
"We don't know about Osama bin Laden. We don't know if he's alive or dead," said Gen. Pace, appearing with Mr. Rumsfeld.
Mr. Rumsfeld confirmed that "hundreds" of additional U.S. troops are being dispatched to the Tora Bora mountains to help the Afghans comb the cave complexes.
"Whatever is needed will be sent, and it won't be just the United States. It'll be coalition forces," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
A defense official said Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, is deploying the additional troops because the Afghan forces are not doing enough to root out al Qaeda fighters from numerous cave tunnels.
Asked about deficiencies of the Afghan fighters, Mr. Rumsfeld said: "It's awful tough for anyone sitting in Washington, D.C., to be critical of the Afghans, given what they've gone through, so far be it from me to do so."
Mr. Rumsfeld said he is not concerned about reports that fewer Afghan fighters now are working the caves in Tora Bora.
"I'm not the slightest bit concerned about that; to the extent more people are needed, coalition forces will supply them, or else other Afghan forces will supply them," he said.
Members of al Qaeda who are taken prisoner are being photographed and fingerprinted to find out "who are all these people that have been running around shooting up this place and terrorizing Afghanistan and other countries," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
"We want to know who they are, and even if we don't end up taking control of them it's a helpful thing just for nations to know who they were, just from visas and things like that or entry permits," he said.
Bin Laden continues to elude capture, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a visit to an air base in South Asia.
"I don't know where he is. I'd rather not speculate if he's alive," Gen. Myers said. "We're following up on all leads. If he's left Afghanistan, fine. In the end, I'm confident we will find him. This is a long struggle. It's event-driven, not timetable-driven. Everybody seems to think it's over. I don't think it's over. We know who we want. We have to figure out where they are."
The Pentagon also announced it has built a new high-powered bomb designed to attack the numerous caves and tunnels in Afghanistan. The bomb is called a "thermobaric" weapon, which is designed to blast the inside of a cave or tunnel without collapsing the entrance.
"It's something that we clearly have a need for in Afghanistan, and they're on their way over there," Pentagon official Pete Aldridge told reporters.
Military officials rushed the bomb into service after the September 11 terrorist attacks and tested it last week in Nevada, Air Force spokesman Capt. Joe Della Vedova said.
The weapon, developed initially as a penetrator for hitting bunkers and buildings, is modeled after fuel-air explosives used to clear landing zones in jungles.
The bombs employ a cloud of explosive particles that produce shock waves that can be directed at enclosed spaces. They are dropped from aircraft and guided to targets by laser designators or satellite navigation guidance.
The next phase in the war against terrorism may involve nonmilitary intelligence or diplomatic efforts, Gen. Myers said later aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the north Arabian Sea.
There are "things that are being worked on," he told reporters. "We are doing the kind of planning required, but I'm not going to get into that."

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