WASHINGTON -- U.S. warplanes struck a military compound Thursday in eastern Afghanistan where members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network were regrouping, the Pentagon said. It was the first American airstrike since Dec. 28.
The strike reflected a U.S. concern that remnants of the al-Qaida network -- which the United States blames for the Sept. 11 attacks -- are trying to reorganize even as the search for bin Laden continues by air, land and sea.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon is prepared to pursue bin Laden and his top lieutenants, as well as Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban leaders, for as long as it takes to capture or kill them. He said the hunt, while not yet successful, has already paralyzed al-Qaida.
''Obviously our goal is to find them, and we intend to keep pursuing that,'' he told a Pentagon news conference. ''But our real goal is to see that people are not committing terrorist acts to the extent we can stop the recruiting, we can dry up their funds, we can arrest enough people and gather enough intelligence.'' He said the U.S. military has caused ''considerable disruption'' of al-Qaida.
Rumsfeld repeatedly stressed the effectiveness of the U.S. military campaign against al-Qaida, even while acknowledging that President Bush's stated goal of bringing its top leaders to justice has not been accomplished.
The military campaign has made it harder for al-Qaida to raise money, to communicate among its members, to travel inside and outside Afghanistan and to train its members in terrorist techniques.
''We've disrupted any number of training camps, and it does take training to become a polished, successful murderer or mass murderer,'' Rumsfeld said. ''You just don't walk out of grade school with that kind of knowledge; you need to practice and be taught by experts.''
Even so, Rumsfeld acknowledged that the war in Afghanistan will not be over until the top culprits are found.
''One has to appreciate the difficulty of tracking down a single human being anywhere,'' he said. ''Look at the difficulty the United States of America has tracking down the 10 most wanted criminals.''
In other developments:
n Afghan officials said progress was being made in negotiations with intermediaries over the terms of surrender for Omar and 1,500 of his fighters, and they expected a breakthrough soon. U.S. officials were adamant that no deal be offered that would lead to freedom for the second most wanted man after bin Laden.
n Prime Minister Hamid Karzai has agreed to visit President Bush next month in what will be the first visit by an Afghan leader in almost 40 years, the White House said.
n Pakistan arrested the former Taliban ambassador in Islamabad, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, said Zaeef's nephew, Hamid Ullah. He said he did not know the reason for the arrest of Zaeef, who was the most prominent Taliban spokes-man during the U.S. campaign against the militia.
n Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States is currently holding 248 Taliban or al-Qaida members from Afghanistan either at U.S. bases in the country or on ships. Rumsfeld said an undetermined number of prisoners would be moved to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as soon as the base is readied.
Details of Thursday's attack were sketchy.
Myers told reporters that B-1 bombers, F/A-18 strike aircraft and AC-130 gunships attacked the compound in the Khowst region, near the Pakistan border.
Other officials said four B-1s and three F/A-18s dropped about 100 bombs on the compound, which included a training facility and a cave complex. Also taking part was at least one AC-130, a special operations aircraft that delivers a withering barrage of cannon fire and howitzer shells. One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the undetermined number of al-Qaida fighters from the compound appeared to be regrouping either to resume fighting or to slip across the border into Pakistan.
The same compound was struck by U.S. cruise missiles in August 1998 in response to terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, Myers said. It also was struck last fall.
''It has been a place where the al-Qaida goes to regroup,'' Myers said. He declined to describe in detail what triggered Thursday's attack except to say ''activity'' had been detected there.
It was not clear how many al-Qaida members may have been killed in the attack.
On Wednesday the Pentagon said its concern about al-Qaida members regrouping -- after having abandoned their last major stronghold in the mountainous Tora Bora region north of Khowst -- led to air strikes Dec. 28 on a compound near the city of Gardez, a short distance from the site of Thursday's bombing.
Myers said some intelligence gathered in Afghanistan has been ''fruitful'' in stopping terrorist acts elsewhere. He would not provide details.
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