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Afghanistan: U.S. Identifies Sites Linked To Weapons Research

Have Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network been trying to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in Afghanistan? U.S. officials say they now have indications -- though no firm evidence -- of such activities.

Washington, 28 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A top American general says the United States has identified more than 40 sites inside Afghanistan where followers of suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden may have been conducting research on weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. Army General Tommy Franks made the disclosure yesterday at a news conference in Tampa, Florida, at U.S. Central Command headquarters. Franks is in charge of U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan against the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

"We've identified more than 40 places which represent potential for WMD [weapons of mass destruction] research or things of that sort. Of those, a great many are currently under opposition [anti-Taliban] leadership control. And we're very systematically going about our way visiting each one of those [sites]."

Weapons of mass destruction are chemical, biological, and nuclear devices.

Franks said tests are being performed on the suspected locations but added that he has no indication any of the tests performed so far have produced firm evidence of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons research.

Franks said it was unclear whether chemicals and equipment found so far in Afghanistan were for use in weapons or for production of fertilizers.

The administration of President George W. Bush has said it is taking seriously claims by bin Laden that he and his associates have pursued the development of weapons of mass destruction.

The United States blames bin Laden for a series of assaults on U.S. targets, including the coordinated 11 September attacks that killed about 4,000 people in New York, Washington, and western Pennsylvania.

Franks said some of the suspect sites were still under the control of the Taliban, which protected bin Laden and ruled Afghanistan until being ousted by the opposition forces and U.S. bombing in much of the country.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who appeared with Franks at the news conference, said if any weapons of mass destruction are discovered, U.S. troops will remove them from Afghan soil. "In the event weapons of mass destruction are located that the United States would be very interested in getting their hands on them."

Speaking about the war, Rumsfeld said Taliban and Al-Qaeda strongholds are crumbling and their leaders are being forced to move about the country to stay alive.

But both Rumsfeld and Franks cautioned that the fighting may not be over soon. Rumsfeld said Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces could still launch surprise attacks, including possible suicide missions using grenades or other explosives.