"Today, we have struck back," President Bill Clinton told the American people.
After the bombings of the American embassies in east Africa earlier this month, the US had promised that its memory and its reach were long.
But the speed and scale of the response were staggering. "The United States launched an attack this morning on one of the most active terrorist bases in the world," the President told a hurriedly convened press conference near Martha's Vineyard, where he had gone on holiday only two days before.
"It is located in Afghanistan and operated by groups affiliated with Osama bin Laden, a network not sponsored by any state, but as dangerous as any we face."
Bin Laden, a rich Saudi alleged to have played a co- ordinating role in many attacks on US targets, had been put up as the chief suspect since the early aftermath of the embassy bombings. Recent arrests in Pakistan again saw his name in the frame. The only credible claims of responsibility came from groups linked to him.
Tony Blair, who was forewarned of the offensive, welcomed the US action. "The atrocities this month in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Omagh have shown the pain and suffering terrorism can bring to innocent people," he said. "I strongly support this American action against international terrorists."
Mr Clinton said in a televised address to the nation: "Our mission was clear. To strike at the network of radical groups affiliated with and funded by Osama bin Laden, perhaps the pre-eminent organiser and financier of international terrorism in the world today."
American forces launched attacks on six sites in Afghanistan. They were all part of one complex which the US said was a base for Bin Laden and a number of groups linked with him, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad and another body called the Armed Islamic Group.
Reports from Pakistan said Bin Laden had survived the attack. "I assure you that he is alive," a Taliban spokesman said. The Taliban, a radical Islamist group which controls most of Afghanistan, said the attack was a declaration of war. "This attack is not against Osama [bin Laden] but it is a demonstration of enmity for the Afghan people," a Taliban spokesman said.
The President laid out the case behind the bombings. "We have convincing evidence these groups played the key role in the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania," he said, adding that "these groups have executed terrorist attacks against Americans in the past."
In particular, Bin Laden has been linked to attacks on the US forces which landed in Somalia in 1992, the worst military debacle of Mr Clinton's term in office. The President added that Bin Laden was behind six attempted bombings of US airliners, an attempt on the Pope's life, and the killing of German tourists in Egypt. Washington said the strikes were intended also to forestall other attacks.
"We have compelling information they were planning additional terrorist attacks against our citizens and others," Mr Clinton said. These groups "are seeking to acquire chemical weapons and other dangerous weapons", he added.
The US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, warned that there might be further strikes.
In north-east Khartoum, the US strikes wrecked a building which America claimed was a chemical weapons plant but the Sudanese said was a pharmaceuticals factory. The Sudanese Interior Minister, Abdel-Raheem Mohammed, denied there were any chemical weapons factories in the country.
A Sudanese mob stormed the empty US Embassy compound in Khartoum. Scores of people scaled its wrought-iron perimeter fence while hundreds more outside threw stones at the building or struck at the fence with sticks. They shouted: "Allahu Akbar", the Muslim rally cry meaning "God is Great", and: "Down, Down USA", in English.
America's media had spent the morning dissecting the US President's legal problems, while in Washington, Monica Lewinsky was giving new testimony on her affair with Mr Clinton. Reportedly hurt and upset by his conduct, Ms Lewinsky was telling more about their relationship.
Her departure from the courthouse coincided with the President's press conference, removing it from American television screens.
"The only motivation driving this action was our obligation to protect the American people from terrorist activities," Mr Cohen said.
He was responding to a question as to whether he had seen the film Wag the Dog, where the White House organises a war in Albania to divert attention from a sex scandal.Reuse content