Allies Poised For 'Ferocious'
Escalation Of Ground War
By Joe Murphy in London
Philip Sherwell in Jabal Saraj
and David Wastell in Washington
The Telegraph - London

A sustained wave of ferocious ground assaults on Afghanistan 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 deployment 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 Mohammed".
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 Prophet and deceiving the believers.
"Today, without any evidence, the UN issues decisions supporting the oppressive, tyrannical and arrogant America against those oppressed who have emerged from a ferocious war at the hands of the Soviet Union.
"Whoever stands behind Bush has committed an act that stands as an annulment of their Islam. This war is primarily a religious war."
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 US".
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 desperation."
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 propaganda."
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 opposition's 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 terrain.
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 campaign," 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 Afghanistan 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 strategic position overlooking the road from opposition-held Charikar to Kabul.
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 away.
Despite the onset of winter, with snow and gales lashing the mountains, special forces operations to track down bin Laden are unaffected. 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 border 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 identified as a possible hideout for Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and his governing council.
Washington is keen for rapid progress towards Mazar before Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, which begins in two weeks. Although Mr Bush has insisted that the US bombing campaign will not be affected, Pentagon 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 Kabul.
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 supporters.

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