- A sustained wave of ferocious ground assaults on
by American and British forces is to be launched this week in a drive to
speed up the toppling of the Taliban.
- Military planners have been told to be ready to step
up attacks in anticipation of a breakthrough in international support for
an interim government to take over the country, with the exiled king, Zahir
Shah, as figurehead leader.
- In the first stage America will concentrate the
of special forces around the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, to pave
the way for its capture by the opposition Northern Alliance.
- The decision was made as Osama bin Laden, the fugitive
leader of al-Qaeda, infuriated the allies by releasing another videotaped
appeal for an Islamic holy war, broadcast by al-Jazeera television.
- He accused the coalition of "annihilating villagers,
women and children, without right". Moderate Arab leaders co-operating
with the allies were "infidels in the eyes of the message of
- It was bin Laden's second televised statement since the
September 11 attacks on America. In the video, which gave no clue to his
location, he said: "Those who take our tragedies today and want to
solve them in the United Nations are hypcrites, deceiving God and his
and deceiving the believers.
- "Today, without any evidence, the UN issues
supporting the oppressive, tyrannical and arrogant America against those
oppressed who have emerged from a ferocious war at the hands of the Soviet
- "Whoever stands behind Bush has committed an act
that stands as an annulment of their Islam. This war is primarily a
- Bin Laden's comments were broadcast as a survey by a
newspaper claimed that the terrorist leader commands significant support
among British Muslims. The unscientific questioning of Muslims - carried
out by Sunday Times reporters, not a polling company - found that 40 per
cent believed "bin Laden has cause to wage war against the
- Peter Hain, the Foreign Office minister, dismissed as
"desperate fantasy" bin Laden's claims that the Un was against
Muslims. "This is a contemptible statement," he said. "It
is evidence of Osama bin Laden's total isolation and his
- In Washington, Bush administration officials said the
tape showed that bin Laden was beginning to feel the pressure. A White
House spokesman said: "His expression of hatred and incitement to
violence against innocent people is just one more indication of how far
removed he is from civilised society. This is just more misguided
- The war against bin Laden and his followers was boosted
yesterday when the Northern Alliance claimed a breakthrough in a new
offensive to take Mazar, saying that it had seized Aq-Kupruk, 45 miles
to the south, after the defection of 800 Taliban troops.
- If confirmed, the fall of the district would be the
biggest military success since Anglo-American air strikes were launched
four weeks ago.
- Plans to seize a Taliban airstrip to use as a temporary
forward base for refuelling and delivering aid in the winter have also
been drawn up. Action will be limited to fast-moving sorties rather than
a full-scale invasion force because of the difficulties in holding
- The decision to step up pressure on the Taliban reflects
anxiety in Washington that public opinion and the international coalition
will erode if action were limited to bombing raids until next spring, the
earliest that a larger invasion force could be countenanced because of
the severe winter weather.
- It also follows greater optimism that a deal is on the
table for a government to replace the Taliban. Last week, during talks
with Tony Blair, King Fahd, the Saudi leader, gave his personal endorsement
to the allied proposals for a broad-based interim government.
- Britain regards King Fahd, who holds the formal title
of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, as a figure who can carry moderate
Muslim states. He is also a mentor of General Musharraf, the Pakistani
president, whose military assistance is vital.
- In another sign of Saudi support, its former intelligence
officer, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said in a television interview that bin
Laden was behind the US attacks. "I have no doubt that it was him
[bin Laden] who did it, and he has no justification for that," said
Prince Turkim who was relieved of his post "at his request" days
before the attacks. He is the first Saudi figure to state publicly that
bin Laden was guilty.
- Mr Blair will brief President Bush on his discussions
with King Fahd at the White House on Wednesday night. "The agreement
on the new Afghan government is one of the keys to the military
said a British official.
- A Northern Alliance offensive to take Kabul is being
put on hold until tribal groupings agree to abide by the plans. Limited
American air strikes were trained on Taliban positions in northern
and near Kabul yesterday.
- Two F-18s carried out a three-hour raid on a Taliban-held
village near the front line north of the capital, dropping at least 16
bombs from high altitude on Es Takh Kherch.
- The attack followed opposition radio reports suggesting
that hundreds of Taliban had moved into the village, which holds a
position overlooking the road from opposition-held Charikar to
- The absence of B-52s, which bombed Taliban positions
on Wednesday and Friday, was explained by gale-force winds and the danger
of accidental strikes on opposition trenches just a few hundred yards
- Despite the onset of winter, with snow and gales lashing
the mountains, special forces operations to track down bin Laden are
They are using thermal imagers that are even more effective at spotting
humans in the cold and can also identify entrances to caves.
- According to reports in the US yesterday, the search
has been narrowed to five cave complexes in Paktia province, near the
with Pakistan, which are under 24-hour surveillance by spy satellites and
unmanned Predator aircraft.
- A second set of caves north of Kandahar has been
as a possible hideout for Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and his
- Washington is keen for rapid progress towards Mazar
Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, which begins in two weeks. Although Mr
Bush has insisted that the US bombing campaign will not be affected,
officials have privately acknowledged that the air strikes will be eased
during that month.
- Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, said last
week that the Pentagon was planning a three- or four-fold increase in its
deployment of fewer than 100 special forces personnel near Mazar and
- US warplanes have fired on Taliban forces attempting
to apprehend Hamid Karzai, the prominent Afghan leader from the dominant
Pashtun tribal group, who became trapped in the south almost four weeks
ago while trying to negotiate support for the proposed government.
- Mr Rumsfeld said America had supplied Mr Karzai with
food and ammunition and hinted that troops might soon be put on the ground
to help him. The Taliban claimed to have hanged three of Mr Karzai's
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