- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

Russia was sending scores of tanks to opposition forces in Afghanistan as the Pentagon warned yesterday that Taliban forces planned to poison foreign food aid and blame it on Americans.
The arms shipments had begun moving to Northern Alliance forces occupying northern Afghanistan, said Bush administration officials, who added that the armor would provide a major boost in firepower to the 15,000 troops of the Northern Alliance.
The United States and coalition forces hoped the tanks, armored fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers would be used in a major offensive to oust the ruling Taliban regime in Kabul within the next several weeks, said officials who spoke to The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon, meanwhile, said yesterday that the Taliban was planning to poison foreign food aid sent to Afghanistan and blame any resulting deaths on the United States.
"The United States has obtained information that the Taliban might intend to poison humanitarian foodstuffs," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff.
"We would never poison any foodstuffs," Adm. Stufflebeem said. "But, we have obtained information, so I will confirm for you that there are reports that the Taliban might poison the food and try to blame the United States."
Disclosure of the reported food-poisoning plan was a pre-emptive propaganda strike by the Pentagon. It came amid Taliban claims that U.S. and allied bombing had caused thousands of civilian casualties and hundreds of deaths, charges rejected as false by the Pentagon.
For example, at a press conference in Islamabad two weeks ago, Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef said that "more than 77 civilians have been martyred in different forms in our country, and the number is increasing with the passage of time."
"This is at a time when the Pentagon is lying to the world that it is not targeting civilians," he said.
Adm. Stufflebeem warned Afghans not to trust any food distributed by the Taliban.
"Those who have control of those foodstuffs that are not reputable for instance, the Taliban, who we know have control of some Red Cross warehouses of foodstuffs, or Taliban who may be collecting the humanitarian daily rations that are dropped if it comes from that source, I would be very suspect," he said.
"I want to reaffirm that there is no truth that we would poison it," Adm. Stufflebeem told reporters at the Pentagon. "I want every person who can receive humanitarian assistance to do so from an agency that they can trust."
The Russian arms shipment to the Northern Alliance includes up to 40 T-55 tanks, some 80 BMP-1 and BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and several dozen BTR-60 armored personnel carriers, U.S. officials familiar with intelligence reports said of the transfers.
The armor delivery is expected to be completed by the end of this month.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said earlier this week that "we certainly are ready to have the alliance forces move both north and south."
Asked about the progress of the Afghan opposition, Adm. Stufflebeem said: "We're watching this battle move rather slowly on the ground. They're still exchanging artillery. We are still attacking [Taliban] forces. We know we're having an effect on their forces based on what we see from pilot reports that are coming back."
Northern Alliance commanders are "feeling comfortable" with U.S. air strikes against frontline Taliban forces, he said.
However, there is no sign the alliance forces are advancing to Kabul or are closer to taking over the strategic airfield at the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif, he said.
"That's not to say they haven't, but I just haven't seen that," the admiral said.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the 55th Brigade of Taliban forces, heavily populated with members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist group, is continuing to be attacked by U.S. air strikes.
"We have an interest in the 55th Brigade because that is one that had previously been identified as being populated with al Qaeda fighters," he said.
Adm. Stufflebeem said the conflict against al Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban will be long and difficult.
"They are proven to be tough warriors," he said. "We're in an environment they, obviously, are experts in, and it is extremely harsh. I am a bit surprised at how doggedly they're hanging on to power; I think that's the way to put it."
The admiral said in briefing reporters as warplanes struck targets in Afghanistan for an 18th day that he has been surprised that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has failed to see "the inevitability of what will happen" to his regime.
"But we are prepared to take however long is required to bring the Taliban down," he said. "I think that's the best way to put it.
"We definitely need to have patience," he said. "The entire world needs to recognize that terrorism and terrorists are a much different kind of threat than we have ever faced before."
A European diplomatic source confirmed that Russians are supplying arms to the Northern Alliance, but the source could not provide specific numbers or types.
The Russian arms deliveries followed a meeting in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on Thursday between Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, the Russian chief of the general staff, and Northern Alliance commanders.
Another Northern Alliance leader, Borhanoddin Rabbani, said in Dushanbe on Tuesday that his troops were fighting the Taliban on several fronts and expected to mount an offensive soon.
"The troops entrusted to me will soon begin a strong offensive," Mr. Rabbani told the official Russian news agency Itar-Tass. The offensive is expected to take place before the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in mid-November.
A Russian government defense source also told the Interfax news agency that other weapons to be delivered to the Northern Alliance include Grad 122mm multiple rocket launchers and ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft guns.
The arms shipment was estimated to be worth about $45 million, Interfax reported.
In other military developments, U.S. air strikes on Tuesday hit five planned targets, including terrorist camps and forces, Taliban command-and-control centers and Taliban fighters in the field and garrison, Adm. Stufflebeem said.
A total of 90 strike aircraft took part, including 75 warplanes from aircraft carriers, 10 long-range bombers and five AC-130 gunships.
U.S. Air Force C-17 transports also dropped food rations, bringing the total number of packaged meals intended for Afghan refugees to more than 785,000.
The Pentagon also released video showing fighter bombers attacking a military facility near Kabul and a combat-vehicle facility.
Adm. Stufflebeem also said Pakistani military authorities had "secured" an airfield where U.S. salvage helicopters came under fire on Saturday.
The helicopters were sent to pick up a downed U.S. helicopter that had crashed last Friday during a U.S. commando raid. The wreckage was removed by the helicopters yesterday, he said.

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