US Air Strike: Cruise missile attacks were decided last week

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S CRUISE missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan were decided last week, reports from Washington said yesterday. The US concluded last Wednesday that the man responsible for embassy bombings in east Africa was Osama bin Laden, and on Friday decided to go ahead with the strikes.

Cruise missiles were launched from seven ships in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Security officials said no planes or ground troops had been used in the attacks and the missiles were unmanned, therefore incurring no US casualties.

The four simultaneous attacks( at 5.30pm GMT) came at 7.30pm Sudan time and 10pm in Afghanistan and were over in less than an hour, according to William Cohen, the US Defence Secretary. In Afghanistan, the attacks were made on six sites described by US officials as terrorist training camps. The Zhawar Kili Al-Badr Camp in Khowst, 90 miles south of the capital Kabul, was described as a "terrorist university" which operates with the blessing of the Taliban, the group that controls Afghanistan. It includes a base camp with weapons and ammunition, according to US intelligence. Another camp in Jalalabad, 60 miles east of Kabul, was also hit. Both towns are near the border of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

The attack in Sudan was on a suspected chemical weapons factory in the capital Khartoum. Officials in the city said that one "light" bomb and five missiles were aimed at the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Factory in Bahri, an industrial zone north of the city centre.

After bombs ripped through the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, America put all of its resources into finding and targeting the culprits. Yesterday's strikes seemed to indicate several sources of information which America regarded as conclusive in pinpointing the blame. The National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, said that there were "many sources and many methods" which US intelligence had used.

A man identified as Mohammed Saddiq Odeh was arrested the same day as the bombings in Pakistan, because of doubts about his passport. He reportedly told Pakistani interrogators that Bin Laden had been involved, and that he was returning from Nairobi where he had played a key role in the explosions. Mr Odeh was deported back to Nairobi, though he apparently refused to repeat his claims. Two more suspects were also arrested in Pakistan, both carrying Yemeni passports. The arrests led Kenyan authorities to raid a hotel in a Nairobi suburb, which yielded further evidence.

The US claims that there was more information that this, which its intelligence services has been gathering for years. It claims to have intelligence linking Bin Laden to a number of other attacks, including two bombings in Saudi Arabia, attacks on US troops in Somalia in 1993, an assassination attempt on the Pope, and at least six attempted bombings of American civilian aircraft over the Atlantic. It claims to have satellite photographs that showed sharply increased activity at the complex in Afghanistan at the time of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings. And, officials said yesterday, they had information that a gathering of leading figures in the group's headquarters in Afghanistan were to meet there yesterday.

The choice of weapon was dictated by the geography, the proximity of US forces and politics. America has a carrier battle group in the Gulf which includes at least two vessels with Tomahawk cruise missile capacity. It also has carrier-based aircraft, but it may not have wished to risk pilots. It may also have had qualms about using Pakistani airspace. Because Afghanistan is landlocked, aircraft would have had to have flown over a neighbouring country - Pakistan, China, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.

The cruise missiles were fired from vessels in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, indicating that as well as the carrier battle group in the Gulf headed by the USS Abraham Lincoln, other vessels were used, probably belonging to its Mediterranean forces. However, the US was remaining surprisingly coy about the details of from where and how it attacked, perhaps to shield allies whose assistance it received.

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