Air threat remains, says Rumsfeld

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The Independent Online

American bombing has yet to eliminate the danger to US warplanes over Afghanistan, and the United States is working with anti-Taliban forces on the ground to pinpoint threatening military targets, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.

"We have to acknowledge the reality that there is still an air defense threat to the United States," Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday.

Five days of bombing Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network and the Taliban rulers who shield it have taken aim at major targets. But the attacks have not suppressed all the anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles and portable missiles like the Stinger that riddle Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said.

"That is a fact, and we have been attempting to reduce that," Rumsfeld said after meeting with Tom Ridge, the new director of homeland security.

The military has also dropped powerful bombs on a series of massive caves in Afghanistan. U.S. officials suspect the caves are used by bin Laden. Early indications were that the caves were hideouts and contained military equipment, Rumsfeld said.

"I have seen several examples where there were enormous secondary explosions, in some cases, that went on for several hours after targeting underground facilities," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld was asked if the United States was getting information from the rebels in the northern alliance that could be used to strike at al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Information, he said, was coming "from the ground, and to the extent it's actionable ... we then are using it for targeting."

At a Pentagon briefing, Marine Maj. Gen. Henry P. Osman, a senior planner for the Joint Staff, said U.S. officials were in touch with the alliance but were not coordinating targets with the rebels.

Rumsfeld did not voice support for any particular opposition group and said Afghans will shape the future of their country. As for bin Laden's whereabouts, Rumsfeld said the Saudi exile probably remains in hiding in Afghanistan.

On Capitol Hill, two northern alliance representatives, Haron Amin and Daoud Mir, gave Sen. Bob Smith, a Republican, a largely upbeat assessment of the situation at home. Smith said they told him the Taliban's "air power has been taken down, which allows them to move more."

He said they indicated refugees and soldiers are getting the food dropped by U.S. forces, and that morale is high, boosted by what they said were hundreds of defections from the Taliban.

Osman said Wednesday's raids included seven targets, including Taliban troops, vehicle repair facilities and anti-aircraft sites.

The Pentagon also released its first gun camera videotape of weapons striking a missile site. It exploded in a fireball and sent at least one of the Taliban missiles spiraling out of control through the smoke.

"We're satisfied at this point that the attacks have been successful," Osman said.