Covert missions under way on Taliban leader's compound

WASHINGTON - U.S. secret warriors launched dark-of-night covert missions into Afghanistan in addition to assaults by airborne Army Rangers on a Taliban-controlled airfield and a residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, U.S. officials said Saturday.

Two U.S. soldiers died in a helicopter crash in neighboring Pakistan.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Rangers "accomplished our objectives," although neither Omar nor other Taliban or al-Qaida leaders were present during the attack on a Taliban compound near the southern city of Kandahar.

The two soldiers, whose identities were withheld until relatives were notified, were the first acknowledged combat deaths of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, which began Oct. 7. Myers said heavy dust clouds created by the chopper's rotating blades during a landing probably caused the crash.

President Bush last month signed a sweeping order directing the CIA to destroy terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and his communications, security apparatus and infrastructure, The Washington Post reported, quoting unidentified senior government officials.

Bush also added more than $1 billion to the spy agency's war on terrorism, most of it for the new covert action, the newspaper said in a story for Sunday editions.

White House spokesmen, traveling with Bush in China for an Asian-Pacific economic conference, could not be reached immediately.

The president did not comment directly on the raid. He said he was satisfied that the military was achieving its objective of destroying terrorist hide-outs.

"We are slowly but surely encircling the terrorists so that we can bring them to justice," Bush said in Shanghai, China. He said he grieved for the dead soldiers, who "died in a cause that is just and right."

Three other Americans were injured in the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter, and two Rangers were injured while parachuting onto an airfield in southern Afghanistan at the outset of the raid, Myers said.

Officials would not disclose the role of the Black Hawk, although some believed it was preparing to swoop across the border into Afghanistan in the event any Rangers had to be rescued.

Myers would not discuss other U.S. ground operations under way inside Afghanistan. Another senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said covert ground operations meant to be kept secret even after they are over were under way Saturday. The official offered no details.

No reporters were present during the Ranger raid. Although the Pentagon at a Saturday news conference showed a few video clips taken by its own camera operators - including one of Rangers parachuting onto the airfield - it was not possible to tell how the operation was carried out.

Myers said some details will be kept secret to deny the ruling Taliban any foreshadowing of future ground attacks.

The Taliban's official Bakhtar news agency said four helicopters landed in Kohi Baba, 20 miles northwest of Kandahar, but found the camp deserted. "The American air operation in Afghanistan has made no gain, and the helicopter operation has failed," Bakhtar said.

U.S. bombing continued Saturday at approximately the same scale as Friday. Attacking were dozens of Navy strike aircraft, several Air Force bombers and a few Air Force fighter-bombers.

On Friday about 100 aircraft attacked 15 target areas, Myers said. As has been the Pentagon's practice, Myers would not comment on current air missions but offered some details about the previous day's. He said targets Friday included air defenses and ammunition and vehicle storage areas.

Air Force C-17s delivered more food rations to western Afghanistan, bringing to 575,000 the number of rations dropped from the air since the military campaign began. Also, an Azerbaijani official said his government has granted permission for C-17s to use his country's airspace for the airdrops and to deliver equipment related to the military campaign. Azerbaijan lies east of Turkey and north of Iran.

U.S. warplanes had struck other of Omar's residences during two weeks of bombing, but Myers said the one assaulted by a force of more than 100 Rangers had not been attacked before. He said U.S. officials had hoped he would be there but were not surprised to find him gone.

Myers would not say whether U.S. forces took anyone prisoner during the raid. Intelligence materials were collected and will be analyzed, he said.

The Taliban, which controls more than 90 percent of Afghanistan's territory, has been harboring bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind believed to have had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. The U.S. military campaign is designed to crush the Taliban, including its mostly decrepit military forces, and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Friday's Ranger raids were against two targets at separate locations, Myers said. He described Taliban resistance as light. A small weapons cache discovered in a building at the airfield was destroyed, he said. Some of the weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition, were displayed in a U.S. combat video, shot with a night-vision lens and shown at the Pentagon news conference.

Myers said an undetermined number of Taliban forces were killed or injured.

Omar's compound was near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, and the airfield was "a considerable distance" southwest of Kandahar, according to another senior defense official speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Rangers parachuted onto the airfield from an MC-130E Combat Talon, a special operations aircraft designed to fly nighttime troop delivery missions at low altitudes below enemy radar. It was not clear how the Rangers got to their second target, the compound closer to Kandahar. Myers said a variety of aircraft were used in the mission, but he would not be more specific.

Myers refused to say whether U.S. forces remained in control of the airfield, and he would not say whether those troops left Afghanistan.

"They are now refitting and relocating for potential future operations against terrorist targets and other areas known to harbor terrorists," he said.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment