Casualties could be heavy, says minister

Taliban claim bin Laden 'missing for two days';

US military hints at attacks beyond Afghanistan;

Terror plot 'evidence' revealed soon, says Powell
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The Independent US

America said yesterday it will press on with plans to attack Afghanistan despite claims by the Taliban regime that Osama bin Laden has gone missing.

The pace of America's political and military build-up is quickening, and US officials are hinting broadly that they want to attack targets beyond Afghanistan, possibly in Iraq. British ministers are warning that the death toll may be large, and the conflict long.

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, warned about the length of the conflict and the risk of British casualties. "We should not underestimate we are in for a long haul. The battle against terrorism will not be won in months, perhaps not even years," he told BBC1's Breakfast With Frost. He admitted Britain could be a target for those behind the US attacks. "We have had thousands of casualties already because of the awful and evil acts that have taken place. I think we have to expect that and we have to be prepared to tolerate that."

The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, reported that Mr bin Laden had been missing for two days. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the regime's leader, sent emissaries to tell Mr bin Laden of last week's decision by the country's Muslim clergy that he should leave the country voluntarily. The ambassador said the Taliban had been searching for the past two days "but he has not been traced".

These claims were met with derision in Washington. Condoleezza Rice, President George Bush's national security adviser, said America's determination to launch its "war against terrorism" would not be diluted by such claims, which she said were untrue. "We're not going to be deterred by comments that he may be missing. We simply don't believe it,'' she said.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, added: "They know where he is. It's just not believable that the Taliban do not know where the network can be located and turned over and expelled."

As President Bush ordered the Stars and Stripes that has been flying at half-mast at Camp David to be raised, America said it would soon be able to reveal its evidence linking Mr bin Laden to the 11 September attacks. The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said: "In the near future, we will be able to put out a document linking him to this attack." Such evidence will be important in securing the support of Islamic countries in any coalition.

As B-52 bombers rolled out and more troops moved equipment into place, America's Middle East allies stepped up to support a military operation. The United Arab Emirates, one of just three countries that recognise the Taliban, cut ties with the regime, and Turkey said it would let American military planes use its airspace and airports. But Saudi Arabia, while supporting Washington, is refusing to allow the Americans to use Saudi air force bases to launch attacks.

A team of Pentagon officials arrived in Islamabad to finalise plans for America to use Pakistani facilities, airspace and intelligence in an attack on Afghanistan. In recognition of the support it has received, the US lifted sanctions against Pakistan and India imposed to punish both countries for their nuclear programmes. Pakistan has agreed to co-operate fully with Washington, despite furious internal disagreement.

Pakistan faces a further heavy burden as more refugees stream out of Afghanistan. The United Nations has said that in a worst-case scenario it expects an additional 1.5 million people to make for Pakistan and Iran, where 3.5 million Afghans have already sought refuge.

The US hinted at military action going beyond Afghanistan, raising fears it intends to strike Iraq. "What we've been doing is getting our capabilities arranged around the world so that [when] the President decides that he has a set of things he would like done, we will be in a position to carry those things out," Mr Rumsfeld said. Asked whether the US would strike Iraq, he would only say: "I think the President has a set of decisions and calculations he has to make." However, Mr Powell is said to be resisting an expansion of US operations, and allies – including Britain – are concerned about the consequences of extending the conflict.

The first casualty of war between the US and the Taliban seems to have been a pilotless plane. America reported that an unmanned spy plane had gone missing over Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed it had shot the plane down but Mr Rumsfeld said this was not certain.