US warplanes were catapulted off an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf toward Afghanistan to hunt down al–Qaida and Taliban leaders.
"We've driven the al–Qaida bunch into hiding and (the caves) are one of the places where they may be. We want to go after the leadership, that's where the center of gravity is," USS Theodore Roosevelt Rear Adm. Mark Fitzgerald said, without disclosing specific targets.
U.S. Navy F–14 Tomcats and the Marine Corps Hornets were leading Thursday's airborne hunt for Osama bin Laden, his al–Qaida cohorts and leaders of Afghanistan's crippled Taliban regime, including supreme leader Mullah Omar.
With sights set on top officials from both groups, U.S. warplanes Tuesday bombed a compound near the Taliban's spiritual center, Kandahar, believed used by senior Taliban or al–Qaida figures, the Pentagon said. It was unclear if any were killed.
The U.S.–led campaign, which was launched Oct. 7, has killed several lieutenants of bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Mohammed Atef, one of Saudi dissident bin Laden's top two advisers, was killed in a CIA–assisted U.S. airstrike around Nov. 14. Atef was believed to have played roles in several attacks, including the airborne strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Two other leading al–Qaida figures – Egyptians Mohammed Salah and Tariq Anwar al–Sayyid Ahmad – are believed dead after U.S. bombing in early November near Khowst in eastern Afghanistan, officials said.
U.S. fighter jets were called in to provide close air support during a three–day Taliban prison riot in Mazar–e–Sharif, in which hundreds of fighters loyal to bin Laden killed. CIA officer Johnny M. Spann was also killed in the uprising, officials confirmed.
On Monday, five U.S. service members were also injured during the riot after they called in a bombing mission and a bomb exploded too close to them, the Pentagon said.
"We've had an awful lot of instances of doing close air support where the people are in danger of being overrun," Fitzgerald said. "As far as protecting people on the ground, that's a very difficult challenge when you have people on the ground ... (and) people providing close air support to them. That's probably the most difficult mission that our pilots are flying."
The Roosevelt crew has so far launched more 3,000 aircraft, officials said. According to Fitzgerald, the progress on the battlefield has been a surprise.
"We first took out their strategic defenses, their operational reserves, their supplies, their transportation and those kind of things," he said of the Afghan targets. "Then we went after their people, the command bunkers. All of a sudden, the whole thing broke loose. We're obviously very happy about that."
For the last two weeks, the planes have been selectively going after key Taliban and al–Qaida defenses "so that we can enable the ground forces to move in and take over," he said. "Having been at sea for 75 straight days, people are tired, but tired doesn't equate to a loss of morale."
The Roosevelt battle group is one of three in the Arabian Sea. The other two are led by the carriers USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Carl Vinson.Reuse content