Saturday, November 17, 2001

U.S. commandos are conducting their first sustained ground combat in Afghanistan as the Pentagon claims one of Osama bin Laden’s top aides was likely killed by an air strike, officials said yesterday.

Muhammad Atef, commander of the September 11 terrorists attacks on America, was apparently killed this week when strike aircraft bombed a command center south of Kabul.

U.S. officials said the report is based on monitored conversations of members of bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist organization talking of Atef’s demise.

“They said ‘what a shame he is dead,’” said a senior official, paraphrasing the overheard conversations. “Our information is Atef is likely dead. It is based on multiple sources.”

Atef’s killing would be another U.S. success in the war on terrorism in a week that saw the ruling Taliban lose control of the capital of Kabul and two-thirds of Afghanistan. There were reports that the Taliban may be ready to surrender their nominal capital, the southern city of Kandahar. But the Pentagon said the Taliban militia was digging in and defending the city against opposition tribes, who are backed by American special-operations troops.

Atef, an Egyptian-born Islamic radical, was bin Laden’s military commander. From Afghanistan, he did much of the overall planning for the suicide attacks on New York and the Pentagon by 19 al Qaeda-trained terrorists.

Meanwhile, officials said hundreds of American special-operations forces the past two days have attacked Taliban and al Qaeda troops around Kandahar.

Elite Delta Force commandos and Army Rangers are targeting a special brigade of 1,000 Arab soldiers whom bin Laden placed within the Taliban army, a U.S. intelligence source said. The covert warriors are also conducting reconnaissance missions and pointing out targets for carrier-based fighter-bombers.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Fox News Channel yesterday: “They are looking for information. They’re interdicting roads. They’re killing Taliban that won’t surrender and al Qaeda that are trying to move from one place to another.”

Officials said the commandos are executing classic “special ops” missions, bushwhacking some units while hitting others with sniper fire. The Americans use the advantage of high-tech night scopes to spot the enemy, whose troops are not known to own such sophisticated gear.

The Pentagon believes its strike aircraft killed Atef in a Wednesday night raid. The mission was not aimed at the terror master specifically.

After the attack, the U.S. overheard al Qaeda members bemoaning Atef’s death. Other evidence: There has been no word from Atef himself since Wednesday.

Said Mr. Rumsfeld, “The reports I have received seem authoritative.”

The strike on the command center came a day after the U.S. bombed a house south of Kabul that held senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but not bin Laden or his closest associates. The United States learned of an upcoming meeting and “blew the house apart,” said one source. The source said the Pentagon believes the raid killed a top deputy to Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban commander.

Atef’s demise would be a major blow to the leadership of al Qaeda.

“Once we confirm that this is true, Osama bin Laden no longer has a principal assistant that he has been counting on for developing military or terrorist operations,” Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said. “If [Atef] has, in fact, been responsible for the personal security of Osama bin Laden, then that describes to me an environment where that individual is now going to feel much less secure about where he is, what may happen to him next.”

U.S. intelligence officials considered Atef one of the “big four” who must be killed to achieve President Bush’s goal of destroying the Taliban militia and al Qaeda. The remaining three are bin Laden; his right-hand man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri; and Mullah Omar, the supreme Taliban commander, who has played host to bin Laden for five years.

Atef is the top prize to date in a 41-day bombing campaign that this week focused on terrorist leaders as city after city fell to the Northern Alliance and other opposition groups.

Said Mr. Rumsfeld, “We’ve been using various intelligence assets, trying to locate folks, looking for large movements of people as they’re flushed out, going after caves and tunnels, going after activities and businesses and movements where we know and can tell they are military or al Qaeda or Taliban and tracking to see what they do and then going after them.”

On the battlefield yesterday, the Taliban and al Qaeda continued to suffer losses from air and ground strikes. Some Islamic countries have called for a bombing pause during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began Saturday in Afghanistan. But there does not appear to be any letup in U.S. operations.

Adm. Stufflebeem, briefing reporters on the war, discounted reports that Mullah Omar planned to abandon Kandahar, the Taliban capital and birthplace of the radical militia that took control of Kabul five years ago.

The Taliban yesterday was still defending the key southern city as U.S. commandos and CIA field officers aided the local Pashtun tribes in mounting an assault.

In the north, hard-core Taliban “are dug in” and defending the town of Kunduz, Adm. Stufflebeem said. Northeast of Kabul, the Northern Alliance continued to attack Jalalabad near the border with Pakistan.

With the Taliban cornered or on the run, the U.S. found itself in a better position to hunt down bin Laden.

Last night, U.S. officials said an errant 500-pound laser-guided bomb dropped by an Air Force jet damaged a mosque in the Afghan town of Khost. Its target was a building complex.

“We are unaware of any injuries as a result of the errant bomb,” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement.

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