British forces in action 'within days'

Terror in America: No option but to act, says Blair
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The Independent US

Tony Blair stood shoulder to shoulder with President George Bush last night as the United States pressed on with its massive military build-up around Afghanistan and brushed off as utterly inadequate the suggestion from the country's clerics that Osama bin Laden be invited to leave the country.

Last night, Mr Bush conferred at the White House with Mr Blair about the impending retaliatory action in which Britain is poised to take part. The talks were part of a 10-hour visit to the US by the Prime Minister, which took himto New York to see the devastation in lower Manhattan and then to attend a memorial service for the many Britons dead or missing.

Mr Blair made clear he was on the brink of sending British forces into action against the "terrorist fanatics'' based in Afghanistan, who, he believes, were responsible for last week's atrocities. He promised he would not "flinch" and declared: "We have no option but to act. I hope very much that in the next few days we demonstrate as a world our complete solidarity in this fight that is so important to us".

His comments came as the estimated death toll from the attacks rose to almost 7,000 after Rudolph Giuliani, the Mayor of New York, said the number of missing and presumed dead at the World Trade Centre had climbed to 6,333 ­ an increase of more than 900 on the previous estimate. The number of Britons is put at more than 200. US officials have already confirmed the deaths of 241 people in New York.

A further 44 people are believed to have died in the United Airlines flight which crashed in Pennsylvania and 64 people aboard the American Airlines plane which crashed into the Pentagon, killing an estimated 125 people.

Mr Blair made himself a symbol of Britain's solidarity with the US by attending the President's address to Congress, in which Mr Bush was to set out the aims of the war he has declared on terrorism worldwide. "We will direct every resource at our command and every necessary weapon of war to the destruction and defeat of the global terror network," Mr Bush said, according to advance excerpts of the text. "Freedom and fear are at war. Governments need to choose: either you are with us or against us."

The "compromise" which emerged from Kabul has left the White House unmoved, with Mr Bush's spokesman saying America's requirements had not been met and the military preparations, putting up to 500 warplanes within striking distance of Afghanistan, would intensify.

As the carrier group headed by USS Theodore Roosevelt sailed towards the Gulf, 2,000 Marines left their base in North Carolina, also apparently bound for the Gulf, while officials confirmed that army units, almost certainly crack special operations forces, were being deployed. It was also reported by the Washington Post that two former Soviet Central Asian States, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, had agreed to allow the US to use its air bases north of Afghanistan. There were also reports that US transport planes had landed surveillance equipment in Tashkent, the capital of Tajikistan.

The only glitch was the choice of name for the operation ­ "Infinite Justice" ­ which will be changed for fear of giving offence to the Islamic countries that America wants to attract into the coalition, but who believe that infinite justice is dispensed by Allah alone.

Mr Blair spoke of the "huge and heavy responsibility" on his shoulders as he prepared to deploy British forces, but said the servicemen involved would face a more difficult task than him. Some US government sources suggested Mr Blair's hastily arranged visit was a sign military action was "only a few days away".

Yesterday brought diplomatic progress on unexpected fronts, as the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, gave his strong backing for the anti- terror campaign, and Algeria ­ wracked by Islamic terrorism itself ­ promised to hand over the names of hundreds of suspected associates of Mr bin Laden, compiled by its own intelligence services.

After his brief stay in the US, Mr Blair was due to attend an emergency EU summit in Brussels, formally throwing Europe's weight behind the anti-terrorism campaign.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, the FBI made what could be a breakthrough by arresting Nabil Al-Marabh, who is wanted for questioning about the terror attacks.The FBI was searching for Mr Al-Marabh when it arrested three Arabs in Detroit earlier in the week.