Los Angeles Times

Paul Wong
Soldiers of a tank division fighting Afghanistan”s Taliban rulers pray in Sasht-I-Qala, Afghanistan, six miles from the Tajik border yesterday. The anti-Taliban opposition, known as the northern alliance, reported heavy fighting in several Afghan province

WASHINGTON U.S. warplanes pounded terrorist cave hideouts with powerful, earth-penetrating bombs yesterday, while also targeting Taliban troops, garrisons and military maintenance facilities in heavy airstrikes across Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said warplanes dropped precision-guided “bunker-buster” bombs and other earth-penetrating munitions.

Marine Maj. Gen. Henry Osman, an official of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the bombs were aimed at caves, tunnels and other underground targets the type of places where Osama bin Laden, the suspected architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and other leaders of his al-Qaida terrorist network are believed to hide.

Osman said the air attacks also are zeroing in on Taliban and al-Qaida troop formations after several days in which the objective was to soften up air defenses.

“Taliban troops will certainly be (targeted), he said. “Up to now, the targets have been mostly air defense, command and control and so forth.”

Despite what the Pentagon considers to have been a successful campaign so far, senior defense officials cautioned that the fight in Afghanistan is likely to be a long one. One official said the military plans to settle in for months, if not years, of patrolling the Afghan skies and hitting Taliban and al-Qaida forces as they emerge from underground bunkers.

“We will play to our strengths. And our strength is endurance,” one defense official said. “We can stay there forever.”

Osman said that some of the current targets have been selected based on information provided by the anti-Taliban rebels of the Northern Alliance. But he said the insurgents aren”t being allowed to pick targets or to provide close air support for alliance forces.

With long-range B-1 and B-52 bombers and F-14 and F/A-18 fighter jets soaring over the mountains to strike Taliban positions near the capital, Kabul, Pentagon officials said the planes had hit seven targets Wednesday and six targets Tuesday, including a Taliban motor pool, a military radio station in Kabul, a collection of surface-to-air missiles and a military airfield.

The bombers flew from the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. U.S. forces also lobbed three submarine-based Tomahawk missiles at targets in Afghanistan, Osman said.

As the bombardment of the mountainous country already ravaged by years of war continued, Osman said the military was receiving indications that there have been defections from the ranks of the Taliban. He said it”s unclear how many defections there have been.

Meanwhile, an Air Force sergeant on active duty on the northern Arabian peninsula

became the first announced U.S. military fatality of the operation. The Air Force said Master Sgt. Evander Andrews, based at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, was killed early Wednesday in a heavy-equipment accident.

The Afghan Islamic Press, a pro-Taliban news agency, claimed yesterday that U.S. raids had killed more than 140 people in the previous 24 hours, including dozens in one strike on a village near the eastern city of Jalalabad. At a news briefing in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, Afghanistan”s ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said up 100 people had been killed.

But so far, the Taliban have not backed up their claims of large casualties by allowing journalists access to victims or by broadcasting pictures of significant damage or carnage.

Rumsfeld said that the U.S.-led force has taken steps not always successful to minimize civilian casualties.

“The United States of America does not target civilians,” he said.

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