Enter the Predator, the unmanned plane sent in to attack the Taliban

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The Independent Online

America is flying a revolutionary aircraft, armed but unmanned, for the first time in combat against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida leadership.

The RQ-1 Predator is controlled thousands of miles away in American air bases while it launches attacks using Hellfire missiles, and searches for Osama bin Laden, Mullah Mohammed Omar and their chief lieutenants.

The planes, known as Drones, had been used for the past six years to gather intelligence in conflicts such as Kosovo. Yesterday the Pentagon revealed that it was now running combat sorties in a joint operation between the CIA and the Air Force.

Land-based F-15E Eagles were among American planes taking part in raids yesterday. The aircraft are believed to have been flown from bases in the Gulf, possibly Oman. Taliban officials said seven passers-by were killed when a bomb hit an ammunition dump in Kabul, raising the death toll to about 70 in just 24 hours of strikes on the Afghan capital and Kandahar.

The use of the armed Predators, which can remain airborne for up to 40 hours, show that the Allies are concentrating on attempting to hit vehicles and buildings owned by the Afghan regime hierarchy as well as destroying remaining enemy armour.

Like the AC-130H Spectre gunships, which have also been in action, the RQ-1s fly low and have the powerful firepower to incapacitate ground targets including tanks and armoured vehicles. The American aircraft that reportedly tracked the Taliban military and spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, earlier this month but did not open fire on a building where he had taken refuge was an armed Predator.

On that occasion, the aircraft was being controlled by CIA operatives and there was no one who had the authority to order an attack. The intelligence service is forbidden under executive presidential orders to assassinate.

According to reports, the sighting was later passed on to US Central Command, at MacDill air force base in Tampa, Florida. Later the building was hit by F-18 Navy Hornets, but by then Mullah Omar had fled.

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, is said to have been "mad as hell" and "breaking doors" at the missed opportunity. Since then, both the CIA and Air Force fly the missions jointly.

The intelligence people initially survey the film from the Predator's two colour-video cameras, with operators available with additional satellite equipment if satellite links are lost. Air Force personnel control the plane during flight.

The turbo-prop aircraft moves slowly. Although this makes it vulnerable to anti-aircraft defences, it also gives a clearer view of targets to controllers.Being unmanned also means that it can be sent into potentially hazardous situations without placing pilots at risk.

The Pentagon said yesterday that the Predator's Hellfire missiles had been used "several times" but refused to say who, or what, the targets were.

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