22 Pakistan Fighters Die in Attack
%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:AFG103-102401; AUDIO:%)
TORKHAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ A Pakistani militant group said Wednesday that 22 of its fighters were killed in a U.S. attack on Kabul _ the deadliest known strike against a group linked to Osama bin Laden since the air campaign began Oct. 7.
A group of men were seen bringing the bodies of 11 of the dead Pakistani fighters to the Torkham border crossing Wednesday between Afghanistan and Pakistan, hoping to bury them in their homeland. The Pakistani border guards refused to let them cross, according to the Taliban’s local security chief, Noor Mohammed Hanifi.
``They said, ’You wanted to fight with the Taliban then you can bury your dead in Afghanistan,‴ Hanifi said.
U.S. jets kept up heavy night-and-day pounding of the Afghan capital Wednesday, with huge explosions in the direction of Taliban military sites on the outskirts.
Warplanes also struck Taliban front-line positions north of Kabul for the fourth straight day as the opposition alliance said it was reinforcing its troop strength in the area.
At a site 30 miles north of Kabul, where Taliban and opposition forces face off, planes swooped down and unleashed their ordnance in streaks of light. At least 10 bombs were dropped.
``All the houses were shaking,″ said one opposition fighter, Saeed Mir Shah, 24. Taliban gunners responded with surface-to-air missiles, but the high-flying planes were out of range.
The slain Pakistani militants were members of the outlawed group Harakat ul-Mujahedeen, some of whom had crossed into Afghanistan since the U.S. bombing began to help ``devise a plan for fighting against America,″ said Muzamal Shah, a senior official from the group.
A U.S. bomb struck a house in Kabul where the fighters were meeting Tuesday, Shah said in Karachi, Pakistan. Twenty-two of the militants died, including several senior commanders.
Harakat ul-Mujahedeen, or ``Movement of the Holy Warriors,″ was declared a terrorist organization by United States years ago and was among 27 groups and individuals whose assets were frozen by the United States, Pakistan and other countries after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, which Washington blames on bin Laden.
The group is one of the largest militant organizations fighting Indian soldiers in the disputed Kashmir region.
When Pakistani border officials turned away the bodies at the crossing, the group slipped the bodies across the frontier elsewhere, witnesses said. Some of the dead had come from the western Pakistan border towns of Chaman and Dera Ismail Khan and the central port city of Karachi.
In Karachi, about 4,000 supporters of the group protested, demanding the government allow the fighters to be buried in Pakistan. Police fired tear gas at the protesters, who threw stones at police.
Hundreds of Pakistani militants have crossed into Afghanistan since U.S. airstrikes were launched Oct. 7 to root out bin Laden and punish Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers. Many of the Pakistani fighters have said they were joining a holy war against the United States.
Pakistan has called for a broad-based, multiethnic government to replace the Taliban. On Wednesday, about 1,000 Afghans, including tribal leaders, clerics and supporters of the former king Mohammad Zaher Shah, gathered in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar to discuss prospects for a new government.
In other attacks-related developments:
_The Pentagon disclosed new details about Saturday’s commando raids into Afghanistan, in which an airfield was seized and documents taken from a Taliban compound that included a residence of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. An Army MH-47 helicopter struck an unknown barrier while it was taking off, shearing off its front landing gear, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said. It returned safely and no one aboard was injured, she said. The chopper’s wheels were displayed on television by the Taliban, which claimed to have shot down an American helicopter.
_The Pentagon is vowing to flush out any Afghan fighters who hide in residential areas to escape aerial attacks even as it acknowledges a few of its bombs accidentally struck civilian sites. Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said this could include the use of commandos or other ground forces.
In addition to the attacks around Kabul, U.S. jets struck targets around the Taliban headquarters of Kandahar, Taliban spokesman Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi said.
Residents of the Afghan capital could hear jets streaking northward toward front line positions of the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies facing opposition northern alliance fighters.
At a front-line post at the Rabat district, alliance deputy brigade commander Haji Bari claimed the opposition had brought up thousands of troops and weapons to the strategic Panjshir Valley in anticipation of any march on Kabul.
``We’re waiting for the order,″ he told The Associated Press against a background of crackling artillery and machine-gun fire. Alliance commanders said the Taliban had been strengthening their own defensive positions north of Kabul in anticipation of an attack on the city.
For the moment, alliance fighters actually were pulling back their positions to put their troops at a safe distance from U.S. bombs hitting Taliban forces, he said. On Monday, the opposition officer said, three U.S. bombs landed behind alliance lines but caused no casualties.
U.S. jets have been striking front-line positions near Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which opposition forces have been trying to capture since they lost it to the Taliban in 1998.
American support for the northern alliance _ especially along the Kabul front _ threatens to strain relations between the United States and Pakistan, perhaps America’s strongest supporter in the anti-terrorism campaign within the Muslim world.
Pakistan had close ties to the Taliban before the Sept. 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Pakistan also fears the alliance _ a factious, northern-based coalition mostly of minority ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks _ would never be accepted by the Pashtun majority.
The coalition was driven from power by the Taliban in 1996 after four years of internal fighting which devastated Kabul and killed an estimated 50,000 people, mostly civilians.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told a Lebanese television station Tuesday that Kabul should be declared a neutral zone, ``because I see that maybe atrocities (could) start in Kabul″ if the alliance recaptures the city.