British ground forces set for next phase of attack

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Tony Blair gave his strongest hint yet yesterday that military action in Afghanistan was likely to move on to a new phase involving British ground troops.

In his first Prime Minister's Question Time since the war on terrorism began, Mr Blair also ruled out a pause in the bombing, claiming that it would send out "a sign of weakness".

The military action dominated the exchanges as the Commons heard Mr Blair defend the US-led campaign to root out those responsible for the 11 September atrocities. The Prime Minister, who had just discussed the Allies' latest war strategy in a 25-minute phone call with President George Bush, told MPs the air strikes had inflicted "heavy damage" on the Taliban and al-Qa'ida terror camps.

He made clear that British forces were ready for the next phase of the campaign, a move widely regarded as involving ground forces in some form. "We are in the process of establishing the ability to take further military action against both the Taliban regime and the al-Qa'ida network," Mr Blair said. "We're also giving additional help to the Northern Alliance and their efforts against the Taliban."

His comments were backed up later by his official spokesman who, when asked if ground troops would now be used, said that all options were "on the table". He said: "We are breaking down the Taliban air defences .... Military planners have other options under review and we can go down some of those routes if it is appropriate."

Iain Duncan Smith, appearing for the first time as Tory leader at Prime Minister's Question Time, urged Mr Blair to reject calls to halt the bombing. He said: "It is essential that ... we see it through. To stop now would send out a terrible message to Osama bin Laden, the Taliban and any other rogue state bent on terrorism that they will be allowed to get away with atrocities because we lack the resolve to deal with them."

Mr Blair agreed there was "no alternative" to military action against the people who perpetrated the terrorist attacks, "other than saying that we are going to sit back and let them carry on doing it.

"That would be interpreted simply as another sign of weakness. I find it extraordinary for anyone to look at this situation and not realise the absolute necessity to act and then to carry it through," he said.

American and British forces had now damaged the Taliban's military capability, including fast jets, transporters, helicopters, as well as command and control facilities, early warning and air defence systems, radars and surface to air missile sites, he added.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said military action must be underpinned by "maximum" humanitarian effort. Unicef had warned that 100,000 children were at risk of starvation.

Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, urged Mr Blair to take notice of a call for a pause in the bombing from aid agencies amid reports that 400,000 people were surviving on grass and wild vegetation.

Mr Blair replied that the "principal problem" with the drivers of the aid convoys was intimidation by the Taliban regime. He said: "We are doing everything we can to remove the obstacles here. But the single thing that is most important for the Afghan people is to be released from the tyranny of the Taliban regime as swiftly as possible. That is essential and it is essential for humanitarian reasons too."