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Afghanistan: U.S. Strikes Intensify Anti-Terrorist Struggle

Washington, 21 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military strikes against terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan have intensified America's drawn-out struggle against international terrorism and momentarily rallied U.S. congressional leaders around President Bill Clinton.

Clinton cut short a seaside vacation yesterday to return to Washington and announce to the nation that earlier Thursday U.S. forces had struck a terrorist compound in Afghanistan and a suspected chemical weapons factory in Sudan.

The facilities were organized and financed by the Saudi-born multi-millionaire Osama bin Laden who lives in exile in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taleban Muslim fundamentalists.

Clinton said the U.S. has convincing information bin Laden's terrorist network was responsible for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in east Africa two weeks ago and was planning further attacks against Americans.

Press reports said terrorists planned to bomb the U.S. embassy in the Albanian capital Tirana.

But Clinton said only he had ordered U.S. "armed forces to take action to counter an immediate threat from the bin Laden network."

U.S. officials said there were no U.S. casualties on Thursday but disclosed few other details, saying secrecy must be preserved because there could be further strikes.

However, a senior U.S. Defense official who did not wish to be named, did reveal that the attacks were carried out by U.S. ships in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea firing between 75 and 100 Cruise missiles at the two targets.

Sudan state television showed pictures of tumbled masonry and flames engulfing the Shifa pharmaceutical factory in an industrial suburb of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

Defense Secretary William Cohen said the factory was involved in chemical weapons production. He said the strike against it was planned and timed to minimize civilian casualties.

Cohen said the other target was a compound of seven terrorist camps in Afghanistan, southeast of Kabul and a few kilometers from the Pakistan border.

A Taleban spokesman claimed the U.S. raid had done little or no damage to the compound and said also that bin Laden was alive and safe and would not be extradited.

U.S. officials said the strike was designed to weaken operational capabilities of the terrorists, and was not specifically aimed at bin Laden, although he remains a legitimate military target.

One U.S. official described the Afghan base as "the largest Sunni training terrorist facility in the world." He said numerous extremist groups were affiliated with the camp, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Gama' at al-Islamiya, some Kashmiri militants and others.

Clinton said the base served as a training camp for thousands of terrorists around the globe.

"We have reason to believe that a gathering of key terrorist leaders was to take place there Thursday, thus underscoring the urgency of our actions," he said.

He indicated U.S. readiness to carry out more raids, saying America's "battle against terrorism did not begin with the bombings of our embassies in Africa, not will it end with Thursday's strike."

He said the United States will meet the threat of terror with strength and endurance, no matter how long it may take. "This will be a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism, between the rule of law and terrorism," Clinton said.

He said America remains a terrorist target because it is the world's leader for peace, democracy and human values, "because it is the most open society on earth."

Clinton also stressed that the U.S. strikes Thursday were aimed at "fanatics and killers who wrap murder in the cloak of righteousness," not at, as he put it "Islam, the faith of hundreds of millions of good, peace-loving people all around the world, including the United States."

Clinton said "no religion condones the murder of innocent men, women and children." More than 250 people, mostly Africans, died in the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya and more than 4,000 were wounded.

Clinton said the U.S. action sends a clear message that "there will be no sanctuary for terrorists." He said when law enforcement and diplomatic tools are not enough to protect Americans, the U.S. will take what he called "extraordinary steps to protect national security and the safety of U.S. citizens."

Similar statements of resolve and determination were made in briefings and press conferences by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Adviser Samuel Berger, as well as Cohen, and other top U.S. officials.

Albright appealed to "decent people everywhere" to support America's efforts to identify and defuse future threats.

She said "there may in fact be retaliatory actions -- we are very concerned about that, we have issued high-threat warnings at our embassies -- but we are very concerned about what is going on internationally which is why we are gathering international support."

Berger said Clinton spent hours at the telephone Thursday night discussing the issue with world leaders.

The British and Israeli governments were among the first to express strong support for the U.S. action, followed by Australia, and Japan -- all America's traditional allies.

In Moscow the reaction was less than enthusiastic. Interfax reported that the Foreign Ministry is "carefully reviewing" the situation. An unnamed Ministry official was cited as noting that Russia has repeatedly called upon countries "to refrain from involvement in Afghan affairs" and is "categorically opposed" to any such involvement.

At home, most U.S. congressional leaders set aside partisan politics and talk of presidential impeachment, fueled by Clinton's embroilment in a scandal of sex and lies, and rallied to his support.

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich said Clinton did "exactly the right thing" in ordering the strikes.

Gingrich (R-Georgia) said the U.S. cannot allow terrorists to kill Americans and face no consequences. He said he hopes the strikes have been "very decisive."

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said "when it comes to foreign policy, policy differences and partisanship end at the water's edge."

He said he is glad Clinton is implementing an aggressive response to terrorist threats and called for a series of limited strikes. "It's important that this not be a one-time phenomenon," Hatch said. Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Indiana) said the U.S. is in a protracted war against terrorism and the strikes represent what he described as "an escalated and new phase of our counter-terrorism efforts."

But a few Republican legislators did break with tradition and express doubts about Clinton's reasons for the strikes.

Senator Dan Coates (R-Indiana) raised questions about the timing, linking the action to what he called Clinton's "extraordinarily difficult personal situation."

Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pennsylvania) said the U.S. ought to respond forcefully to terrorism but expressed concern about Clinton's possible diversionary motive," suggesting he ordered the anti-terrorist attacks to distract attention from the sex scandal in the White House.

Defense Secretary William Cohen emphatically dismissed the idea at a press conference, saying: "the only motivation driving this action was our absolute obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities. That is the sole motivation."

And former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger also scoffed at the notion of diversionary tactics. In a television interview (CNN), he declared that no American president would play partisan politics with national security and American lives.

Asked about international response to the strikes, Kissinger said some Arab nations might welcome the U.S. action but will be reluctant to say so publicly, while traditional antagonists are likely to be very vocal in their condemnation of the U.S.