'Ground phase launched' in Afghanistan

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US special forces have launched the ground phase of the war on terrorist targets in Afghanistan, it was reported.

The forces are operating in the south of the country "in support of the CIA's effort in the Taliban heartland", the Washington Post said.

The report came after political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic gave heavy hints that a ground offensive was imminent

Prime Minister Tony Blair warned last night that the campaign against Afghanistan was about to enter the "most testing time".

US sources also confirmed that helicopter–borne special forces units were now in place on board the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, ready to mount search–and–destroy operations against Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida network.

US defence officials confirmed soon after the air offensive was launched that special forces were operating in Afghanistan. British special forces are also believed to have entered the country.

But until now it had been assumed that they were involved solely in target identification work during the daily attacks by aircraft and guided missiles.

The Post reported that the new special forces mission was to "expand an on–going CIA effort to encourage ethnic Pashtun leaders to break away from the Taliban militia".

In Downing Street last night, the Prime Minister signalled that the conflict was about to enter a critical new phase, and again hinted at the deployment of ground forces.

"There will be further action that we are considering taking, again targeted," he told reporters.

"This is a testing time. In fact, I believe that the next few weeks will be the most testing time but we are on track to achieve the goals we set out.

"I don't think we have ever contemplated this being done by air power alone. We have always said there would be different phases to this operation. What is unfolding is exactly what has been planned."

Mr Blair also confirmed that the US–led coalition was giving support to the rebel Northern Alliance following the first US bombing raids on Wednesday on Taliban frontline positions ranged against the alliance.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made no explicit reference to ground forces but stressed that warplanes alone – while effective so far in bombing buildings, tanks and troops – will not be enough to rid Afghanistan of al Qaida, the network of terrorists believed to be behind the September 11 attacks.

Warplanes "can't crawl around on the ground and find people," he told a Pentagon news conference last night in an apparent reference to US special operations forces trained to conduct clandestine warfare.

President George Bush, in Shanghai, refused to confirm reports that special forces are in Afghanistan for ground combat. "I will not comment on ... military operations," he told reporters.

Mr Rumsfeld said he had seen "snippets of intelligence information" in recent days that suggested the daily US bombing had created a crescendo of pressure on al Qaida and its Taliban supporters.

"The level of effect has improved in recent days," he said, adding that some in the Taliban are "starting to decide that they'd prefer not to be part of Taliban. And we have seen some movement of what we believe to be the al Qaida forces and they have been specifically targeted while they were moving."

Appearing with Mr Rumsfeld, Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an undetermined number of al Qaida leaders have been "caught up" in the US attacks.

With the air campaign in its 13th day, first reports began emerging that the bombing had killed a veteran figure in Osama bin Laden's al Qaida network.

A London–based Islamic group said an Egyptian who was a veteran al Qaida fighter died in a US strike on Sunday.

Meanwhile Britain, France and Germany were today holding talks on their military tactics in the counter–terrorism offensive in Afghanistan.

Mr Blair was joining President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Ghent, Belgium.

The three are the only EU leaders who have been asked by Washington to make a military contribution to the current counter–terrorism strategy, and their one–hour meeting precedes a scheduled summit of all 15 EU leaders in Ghent.

Today's special talks between the three most influential EU leaders infuriated the European Commission, with President Romano Prodi said it was a "shame" that three member states were meeting separately without involving the rest.

A Commission spokesman explained: "Mr Prodi thinks it is wrong at a time of European unity that some countries are singling themselves out and forming exclusive clubs."

But a UK government spokesman insisted there was no split in the ranks, and the three leaders were simply taking the opportunity of the Ghent meeting to exchange views on military strategy which does not directly involve the rest.