Afghan sites may be tied to research on weapons of mass destruction

Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2001

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon ordered airstrikes Tuesday on an Afghan compound southeast of Kandahar after receiving information it was being used by senior leaders of the Taliban and of al-Qaida and another alleged terrorist group, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.

The information about the target came into U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., while Rumsfeld was visiting Tuesday afternoon.

Pentagon officials didn't say who may have been in the compound and possibly killed, though Rumsfeld told reporters ''It clearly was a leadership area'' and he said those targeted were ''non-trivial.''

''Whoever was there is going to wish they weren't,'' he said.

Rumsfeld said the compound was thought to hold leaders of the ruling Taliban militia, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida organization and Wafa, a Saudi humanitarian aid organization that was among several groups named by the United States as alleged money conduits for bin Laden and his network.

Several hundred members of al-Qaida have been killed during the seven week of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Seven of those killed are considered al-Qaida leaders, said another official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. They include Mohammed Atef, one of bin Laden's top two deputies, killed in a U.S. strike around Nov. 14. Other leaders believed killed include Mohammed Salah and Tariq Anwar, two high-ranking members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who are part of al-Qaida, the officials said.

Rumsfeld spend several hours at Central Command, where he met with Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander running the war.

Franks said U.S. forces in Afghanistan are searching more than 40 laboratories and other facilities suspected of conducting secret work on chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. So far, none has yielded clear evidence of such work, he said, adding that if any such weapons material were found, its removal would be ''nonnegotiable.''

He said results from initial tests of samples taken from some sites were not yet available. The more than 40 sites are in parts of Afghanistan no longer under control of the Taliban militia.

''What we have found in a variety of laboratories is laboratory sorts of paraphernalia,'' he said. ''We have found a variety of chemical compositions and these sorts of things.'' He said it was possible these items were for legitimate purposes such as making fertilizer or other commercial products.

''We have acquired a great deal of samples, and now what we need to do is be very thorough in their analysis,'' Franks said.

He and Rumsfeld appeared at a Tampa hotel not far from U.S. Central Command headquarters.

Franks said he was considering setting up a headquarters closer to Afghanistan, possibly in Qatar, a Persian Gulf emirate that is allied with the United States in its effort to hunt down bin Laden.

In response to a reporter's question whether U.S. intelligence had narrowed bin Laden's likely hiding places, Franks said there are now two main areas of focus. One is Kandahar, southern stronghold of the Taliban government, which has harbored bin Laden, and the other is an area between the eastern city of Jalalabad and a mountain base called Tora Bora, Franks said.

''Those are the places right now that we have been led to, to pay very close attention to,'' Franks said.

Bush administration officials have been careful to say they don't know where bin Laden may be hiding.

Immediately after Franks pointed to Kandahar and Tora Bora, Rumsfeld interjected, ''They are not the only places we are paying attention to.'' He did not elaborate.

Tora Bora was built with U.S. aid for anti-Soviet rebels during the Soviet Union's embattled 10-year occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It lies 35 miles south of Jalalabad, atop a 13,000-foot mountain and three hours by foot from the nearest road. Carved 1,150 feet into the mountain are a series of rooms and tunnels that reportedly can house 1,000 people.

The reason the Pentagon has dispatched about 1,000 Marines to establish a makeshift base 70-80 miles southwest of Kandahar was to increase pressure on the Taliban, who are holding out against opposition forces.

Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, a former Taliban intelligence chief, has said bin Laden and his Taliban allies might head for the towering mountains that rise up to the northwest of Kandahar.

As speculation grows about the possibility of taking military action in Iraq or other countries considered supporters of international terrorism, Rumsfeld left open the possibility that Somalia could be a target.

''Somalia has been a place that has harbored al-Qaida and, to my knowledge, still is,'' he said.


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