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Afghanistan: Taliban Says Air Defenses Have Not Been Destroyed

The Taliban is denying U.S. claims the militia's air defenses have been destroyed in three days of air strikes. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, says the claims are "not true." Last night, U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld said Taliban air defenses had been degraded to the point that U.S. planes could fly over the country at will. Strikes are continuing today, with explosions reported near the southern city of Kandahar and north of the capital Kabul, close to the front between the Taliban and the opposition Northern Alliance.

Prague, 10 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The ruling Taliban militia says three days of U.S.-led air strikes against Afghanistan have not destroyed the country's air defenses.

Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef says U.S. claims that the Taliban's air defense system had been crippled and no longer functions is "not true."

"[U.S. President George W.] Bush's claim that they destroyed the defense capability of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not true. American planes are flying very high and the defense system that we have -- they are not within the range of the defense system that we have. As you know, we do not have such a sophisticated and modern defense system. But it is not true that they have destroyed our defense capability."

U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday in Washington that U.S. bombing raids and cruise missile attacks had succeeded in their objective of making Afghan skies safe for U.S. planes.

"We have struck several terrorist training camps. We've damaged most of the airfields -- I believe all but one -- as well as their antiaircraft radars and launchers. And with the success of previous raids, we believe we are now able to carry out strikes more or less around the clock -- as we wish."

The U.S. air attacks continued today for a third day.

The Taliban says U.S. planes launched a morning bombing raid on the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, striking its airport and targets to the west of the city.

U.S. warplanes were also reported overnight to have bombed Taliban positions in the northern district of Shakardara, along the battle line where the opposition Northern Alliance faces Taliban troops.

The air strikes began Sunday night (7 October) when U.S. and British forces used long-range bombers and sub- and ship-launched cruise missiles to attack Taliban and suspected terrorist targets in Kandahar, Kabul, and other major cities.

U.S. planes carried out night and daytime raids yesterday on Kandahar, Kabul, Jalalabad, and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The raids are focusing on suspected terrorist camps of the Al-Qaeda network and Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden is suspected of masterminding the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that killed an estimated 6,000 people. Bin Laden has been living in Afghanistan as a guest of the Taliban.

Zaeef said today that both bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar are still alive.

"Amir-ul-Momineen [Mullah Mohammad Omar] is alive and in the protection of God. Osama is also safe and alive and [the possibility of their deaths] is merely the dreams of America, which will not come true."

The raids sparked a third day of anti-American protests in several mostly Muslim countries, although the demonstrations were generally quieter than yesterday.

In Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population, hundreds of students clashed with police outside the grounds of Indonesia's parliament in Jakarta. Police fired tear gas after protesters tried to knock down the main gate leading to the parliament complex.

The situation in Pakistan, where the Taliban enjoys support among radical Islamic parties, was calmer today following violent protests yesterday and Monday (8 October) in cities around the country.

Riots this week in Quetta, not far from Kandahar, led to four deaths. Today a mob of angry Afghan refugees surged toward a journalist convoy near the city, but there were no reports of casualties. Pakistani authorities are preparing for larger rallies on 12 October in support of the Taliban.

Officials in Islamabad say Pakistani paramilitary forces fought a two-hour gun battle with 30 Taliban fighters who tried to flee to Pakistan yesterday to escape the air strikes. The clash occurred in Pakistan's northwestern Bajaur region at a place called Nawa Pass -- about 100 kilometers northwest of Peshawar. The officials say the fighters were driven back into Afghanistan.

It was the second time since 7 October that Pakistani forces have clashed with Taliban militiamen trying to slip out of Afghanistan.

Foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference began a meeting today in Doha, for talks to be dominated by events in Afghanistan.

The chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) called on the U.S. to limit the attacks to those who carried out the terror attacks on the United States. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, said the UN should convene a conference on terrorism.

Correspondents say OIC foreign ministers have mostly voiced support for the international fight against terrorism, but have given only a muted response to the U.S.-led strikes.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Oman as part of a Mideast trip aimed at bolstering Arab support for the U.S.-led fight against terrorism.

Blair took the opportunity to criticize a pre-recorded Al-Qaeda statement that was broadcast yesterday over Qatar's al-Jazeera television.

In the statement, Al-Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Bu-Ghaith repeated a call to all Muslims to wage a holy struggle -- or "jihad" -- against the United States.

"It is every Muslim's duty today to wage the Holy Jihad against the U.S. You must fight if you are an able-bodied; there is no excuse. The time is now. This is the word of God. Know that the U.S. interests are all over the world, and not just inside the borders of the U.S. Each and every Muslim must do what they can, regardless of their location, so that the Islamic nation and the Muslim people will prevail. And I must emphasize the value [of the events of 11 September], of what those youths did in the U.S., that storm of planes -- they did good."

Blair said the statement merely confirms that bin Laden and Al-Qaeda must be stopped: "Developments overnight simply confirm what we've been saying all the way through, which is that unless we stop Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, they will continue to hijack, kill, innocent people as they did in America a few weeks ago. And secondly, we've always said Osama bin Laden and the Taliban are working hand-in-glove and this proves it."

For security reasons, Blair's destination after Jordan was not publicly announced.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.