Ground troops set to move into action

Blair warns that military campaign is about to enter 'most testing time'
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The Independent Online

US and British troops are getting ready to move into action in Afghanistan after the clearest signals so far from Tony Blair and George Bush that a ground war was not only inevitable but imminent.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister warned that the land campaign was about to enter the "most testing time". It followed President Bush's statement that the air strikes were to clear the way for "friendly ground troops" to enter the capital Kabul.

It also emerged last night that American special forces are already on board the aircraft carrier, USS Kitty Hawk, in the Gulf, whose main role is to provide a platform for land operations in Afghanistan. The carrier has been stripped of its complement of fixed wing aircraft to carry marines and special forces and the helicopters needed to take them into Afghanistan. British special forces have been in training in the Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia where they will be joined by Australian SAS in the next 48 hours.

The anthrax outbreak in the United States, meanwhile, raised its profile further as it was revealed that an assistant to the best known US anchor, Dan Rather, had been infected by the potentially lethal bacteria, bringing the total of people testing positive to six. Mr Rather said he and other staff at CBS were adamant they would not be cowed by the latest incident. He said: "Our biggest problem is not anthrax it is fear. Those who are most frightened are in the most danger."

The first confirmed case outside the US came in Kenya, where powder in a letter posted from Atlanta, Georgia, to an expatriate businessman from America tested positive.

In Downing Street,a sombre Mr Blair told Arab journalists: "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 that there would be different phases to this operation. What is unfolding is exactly what has been planned."

In the initial stages, ground action will consist mainly of commando operations with special forces attacking specific designated targets, although this is expected to expand in the near future. The scale of the unfolding humanitarian disaster also means large numbers of troops may be needed to bring in and distribute aid.

Mr Blair confirmed that that the US and Britain was giving support to the opposition Northern Alliance laying siege to the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The military airport there has been described by Pentagon strategists as "extremely significant", and can be used as a base for allied forces. The use of AC-130H Special Forces Spectre gunships in the last few days was another indication of coming action on the land. The aircraft is used in a ground support role.

The diplomatic and military drive will continue over the next few days. Today, Britain, France and Germany will meet at Ghent to discuss their contribution. Allied military planners have stressed that they have only a limited window of opportunity to carry out ground action before the bitter Afghan winter sets in next month. Winter will also coincide with Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and sacrifice, which starts on 17 November. Washington and London are acutely aware of the effect any fighting during that time will have on Muslim countries in the so-called global alliance against terrorism.

One of Osama bin Laden's chief associates has been killed, the first such reported casualty among senior members of al-Qa'ida. The Egyptian-born commander, idenfied only by his nom de guerre, Abu Baseer al-Masri, died in an air strike on Sunday near the eastern city of Jalalabad, according to the London based Islamic Observation Centre, which passes on statements from fundamentalist groups.

US aircraft carried out the 12th day of raids on Afghanistan yesterday, its targets including the presidential palace in Kabul. A senior Taliban spokesman, Abdul Hai Mutmaen, claimed the death toll now stood at around 900. The Northern Alliance yesterday maintained that it now controlled 30 per cent of the country. Gul Mohammed, a commander in the strategic Panjshir Valley, said that thousands of fighters had been undergoing special training and put on high alert ready to advance. "Americans will continue bombing the Taliban front lines. After that we will capture Kabul and the remaining troops of the Taliban will join us."