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Senators, Blair promise to stand fast

Warplanes continue to strike hide-outs

Posted: Tuesday, January 08, 2002

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair and nine U.S. senators swept into this former Soviet airbase north of Kabul on Monday and promised Afghan leaders their full support in rebuilding the shattered country.

Blair, in an unannounced midnight visit to this base 30 miles from the capital, also praised the U.S.-led alliance for crushing the terrorist regime in Afghanistan.

The British leader said the international community turned its back on Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, and the country fell into the hands of the repressive Taliban regime.

The Afghan people ''have suffered a very great deal in the past 20 years. But we do desire to be the partners of people here,'' Blair said. ''The world is not going to walk away.''

In an overlapping stop at the airbase, Sen. Joseph Lieberman also said the West would not turn its back on the country.

''I think we learned at a very high and painful price the cost of a lack of involvement in Central Asia on September 11th -- and we're not going to let it happen again,'' said the Connecticut Democrat and 2000 vice presidential candidate.

In mountainous eastern Afghanistan, U.S. bombers attacked a large cache of Taliban and al-Qaida tanks and weapons as part of the effort to eradicate the remnants of the terrorist network.

''It's an ongoing operation,'' Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said of the strikes on the military compound and cave complex in eastern Afghanistan. ''We're finding stuff, and we're attacking that stuff.''

U.S. officials said warplanes have conducted three strikes in recent days at the site, where terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's followers have been regrouping.

''It is a hotbed of support,'' Stufflebeem said.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said American aircraft flew 118 sorties and conducted four airstrikes in the Zawar Kili and Khost area Sunday. The strikes were carried out by long-range B-52 and B-1 bombers, as well as carrier-based strike planes from warships in the Indian Ocean, officials said.

At Zawar Kili, U.S. soldiers who have been searching the complex piled up ammunition near tanks and other heavy weapons they found and called in the airstrike, defense officials said. The group of soldiers, which includes special operations forces, Marines and forensic specialists, also found a large number of bodies of suspected al-Qaida members killed in earlier airstrikes, officials said.

Khost is known as the headquarters of a former minister in the ousted Taliban regime, Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is high on the U.S. most-wanted list.

Blair and the senators, whose visit also was not announced beforehand, met with Prime Minister Hamid Karzai who thanked ''the U.S. Congress and the U.S. people for their support in the war against terrorism in Afghan-istan,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad.

The stop in Afghanistan came at the end of Blair's tour of the subcontinent, which was largely overshadowed by tensions between India and Pakistan. He was the first British leader to visit Afghanistan. Security was heavy as he visited British forces at Bagram. Britain is leading the international force deployed in Afghanistan to support Karzai's interim government.

In other developments Monday:

n A six-nation group led by China and Russia took steps in Beijing to assert a leading role in the region, saying it wants Afghanistan free of foreign influence and welcomed the end of Taliban and al-Qaida control.

The U.N. human rights representative for Afghanistan said the ''rule of the gun'' must end because Afghans will feel truly free only after weapons are restricted, jobs created and daily routines re-established.

Pakistan said its troops arrested 23 foreign fighters trying to cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan over the weekend. At least 350 al-Qaida members, including more then 300 Arab, have been arrested in Pakistan after crossing the border.

In Kabul, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, toured mine-clearing efforts at the airport and discussed minimizing civilian casualties from bombings with the new U.S. special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. ''We've talked about the civilian victims of the bombings,'' Brahimi said. ''It is a concern of his as much as it is of mine. We have no disagreement on this.''



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