Explosions rock eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad

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The Independent Online

Three powerful explosions rocked the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Monday morning as a lone jet streaked across the sky and dropped at least three bombs. Taliban gunners responded with anti–aircraft fire.

The explosions appeared to come from the western edge of the city, which has been the subject of sustained U.S.–led strikes over the past week.

It wasn't clear what Taliban military installations were in that area. But in the mountains that lie to the west of Jalalabad, it is believed Osama bin Laden and his al–Qaida organization operate terrorism camps.

Monday morning's raid was the first since Friday in Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province, where bin Laden is believed to have several camps – south, southwest, west and east of the city.

When he came to Afghanistan in 1996 with 180 of his followers, bin Laden settled in Tora Bora, a mountain base some 100 kilometers (60 miles) southwest of the city.

People were still on Jalalabad's streets in the minutes after the strikes.

A twisted mass of wires and a giant crater are all that remain of the radar station at Jalalabad's airport, once a key transit point in Osama bin Laden's international terrorist network.

The destruction of the radar site by U.S. jets put the Jalalabad airport out of operation in the first days of the air campaign, launched Oct. 7 to force the ruling Taliban to hand over bin Laden and shut down his al–Qaida network. Bin Laden is the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

On Sunday, the Taliban took foreign journalists – the first to visit Taliban–controlled parts of Afghanistan since the air campaign began – on a tour of what's left of the radar installation adjacent to the airport.

The ground was scorched, with blackened grass alongside the single runway. The scorch marks veered toward a hunk of mangled steel and wires – remains of the radar equipment. Where the equipment once stood is a giant crater littered with the metallic fragments of a missile.

The runway appeared only slightly damaged. But flights in and out of Jalalabad have been grounded because of a lack of communications and radar.

"The airport is shut down. No planes are taking off or landing. We are stopped," said Mullah Saqi Dar, the Taliban's airport commander.

Dar said both civilian and military aircraft had been relocated before the start of the air campaign. He would not say where.

U.S. jets have pounded the airports in all the major cities, so it was unclear where the Taliban could send their planes to protect them.

In the past week, Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, which includes Jalalabad, has taken a beating because it was believed to host several terrorist training camps.

The Taliban deny there are any such camps in Afghanistan. However, Taliban sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Jalalabad airport served as a transit point for couriers delivering funds to bin Laden and his network.

One courier – known only as "The Mauritanian" – brought in three sacks, each the size of gym bags, containing Saudi rials and six pistols. On another occasion, six Algerians got off a plane here carrying briefcases full of U.S. dollars, one official said.

A few hundred meters (yards) from the airport, a camouflage–colored tank sits outside the eastern–zone headquarters of the Taliban's ministry for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. This ministry carries out the Taliban's harshest edicts, like the ban on most light entertainment, such as music, television or videos.

Another possible target would be a nearby garrison belonging to a commander known as Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi. Several years ago he gained fame in Afghanistan and Pakistan after he kidnapped several Chinese engineers working in Pakistan's border regions.

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