(AP) The United States hit Afghanistan with a third day of airstrikes, crushing Taliban air defenses, radars and airports to the extent that American warplanes can fly virtually unchallenged night and day, the Pentagon said Tuesday. “The skies are now free,” President Bush said.
The administration pushed for the surrender of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and the ouster of the Taliban regime that shelters him. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged Afghan dissidents to “heave the al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership … out of the country.”
Bin Laden’s spokesman called for a holy war against U.S. interests and praised the hijackers who flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11. “The storm of airplanes will not stop,” Sulaiman Abu Ghaith said.
In a home-front scolding, Bush accused Congress of leaking information about the global investigation into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
“You have a responsibility, and some members did not accept that responsibility,” Bush said. He warned lawmakers not to talk about troop deployments, either.
In the skies over Afghanistan, U.S. bombs streaked day and night toward sites connected with the ruling Taliban. Sources inside the Taliban said bombs struck around Kandahar, the militia’s headquarters, and the northwest city of Herat. Anti-aircraft fire and the roar of jets rattled the capital, Kabul.
Four security workers for a United Nations-affiliated mine-clearing operation were killed during Monday night’s strikes. Rumsfeld said it wasn’t clear whether U.S. bombs or Taliban anti-aircraft fire killed the men.
In an appeal to the United States, U.N. spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said: “People need to distinguish between combatants and those innocent civilians who do not bear arms.”
Bush was unapologetic. “There is one way to shorten the campaign in Afghanistan and that is for Osama bin Laden and his leadership to be turned over so he can be brought to justice,” he said.
Four weeks after terrorist attacks killed more than 5,000 and staggered the U.S. economy, Americans were still on edge.
The FBI pressed its anthrax investigation in Florida, convinced that foul play rather than environmental sources infected one man and exposed a co-worker.
Bush called the death an isolated incident. “We’re on high alert on the governmental level, but the American people should go about their business,” he said.
Rumsfeld declined to identify the targets of Tuesday’s assaults, but said meager Taliban defenses were in shambles. Bush called the mission a success so far.
“We believe we are now able to carry out strikes more or less around the clock as we wish,” Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld said, however, some risk remains to coalition pilots from helicopters, a small number of fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.
Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers opened their news conference with before-and-after pictures of Taliban targets. Each grainy aerial shot of a terrorist camp or military site was followed by a second — the target now cratered or smoke-streaked.
The home of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, about nine miles outside Kandahar, was struck for the third time, Taliban sources said.
There was a dwindling number of targets left to strike in the Taliban’s paltry military or bin Laden’s network, a fact that increased speculation about Bush’s next move. Rumsfeld said Bush has not ruled out the use of ground forces; Bush would not say whether he was considering them.
U.S. officials said the administration will aid the various anti-Taliban militias, broadly suggesting opposition forces could get American air cover. Special forces, already at work in Afghanistan, could be used to support opposition forces, the officials said.
As if to underscore that strategy, fighting between the anti-Taliban northern alliance and regime forces intensified on the third day of U.S.-led strikes. The clashes occurred along the Pyandzh River separating Tajikistan from Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor and a fragile player in Bush’s coalition, the government tightened security in the capital and arrested three Muslim clerics who organized anti-American demonstrations. Four people, including a 13-year-old boy, died in new violence.
On the death of the U.N.-affiliated workers, Rumsfeld said America regretted the loss of lives, but he did not apologize.
“If there were an easy way to root terrorist networks out of countries that harbor them, it would be a blessing, but there is not,” he said.
The Taliban claim dozens of civilians have been killed in U.S.-led raids. Bush ordered the strikes after repeated warnings to turn over terrorists including bin Laden, suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Bush was asked if he wanted bin Laden dead or alive, a phrase he has used in the past. He smiled and said, “I want there to be justice.”
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