U.S. dismisses reports its planes attacked in Afghanistan
By Jeremy Page
Tuesday December 18, 9:37 PM
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - U.S. Central Command said on Tuesday that what was first believed to be a ground-to-air missile attack on two military planes in Afghanistan was nothing of the kind.
Marines Major Ralph Mills, spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Florida, told Reuters flashes on the ground in the southern Afghan desert may have been part of celebrations marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
A Marines spokesman in the southern Afghan town of Kandahar earlier told reporters two C-130 transport planes came under fire over the southern desert from ground-to-air missiles believed to be U.S.-made Stingers.
If true, it would have been the first such attack since the Marines last week took over the airport near the southern city of Kandahar, the former stronghold of the routed Taliban.
While confusion reigned in the south, U.S.-backed tribal forces pursued bin Laden, his al Qaeda fighters and defeated Taliban allies in mountains in the east.
"Two different aircraft saw two different missiles shot in their general direction," Captain David Romley, a U.S. Marines spokesman, said in Kandahar.
The C-130 aircraft fired flares to avoid being hit and neither aircraft was damaged, he added.
Romley said the incidents happened separately early on Tuesday, about 30 minutes apart.
The ground-to-air missiles fired at the C-130s were believed to be Stingers but that had yet to be confirmed, he said.
"We'll address the threat accordingly," Romley said of the danger of ground-to-air missiles, but gave no details of what action would be taken.
But Mills dismissed the report, although he said the planes did take evasive action after seeing flashes from the ground.
He said there was no evidence to support any anti-aircraft fire. Muzzle flashes observed from the ground were believed to have been part of the Eid al-Fitr celebrations marking the end of Ramadan.
"No bursts were seen and no tracer rounds were fired," said Mills, explaining why initial fears of anti-aircraft fire against the planes were later discounted.
U.S. Marines are clearing Kandahar airfield of mines and building a detention centre for captured al Qaeda fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden.
The United States launched its war on Afghanistan on October 7 to flush out bin Laden, its prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and punish his Taliban protectors.
FBI ON AL QAEDA TRAIL
CNN said Federal Bureau of Investigation agents had arrived at Kandahar airport to interrogate al Qaeda prisoners caught in the eastern mountains of Tora Bora that have come under relentless U.S. bombing.
They wanted to find out if any more assaults were planned on U.S. targets.
As officials met in the capital Kabul to put the finishing touches to a new interim government due to take power on Saturday, anti-Taliban commanders pursued bin Laden's trail in the snow-dusted mountains of Tora Bora in the east.
They pledged to press forward cave by cave to track down their foes, but vowed defiantly to carry on their fight without U.S. help, saying their prisoners would be handled without foreign interference.
Among the jagged peaks and valleys of the former al Qaeda bases, an anti-Taliban official said captured fighters of the network would be handed over to the central government.
"We have an understanding with the central government of Hamid Karzai," the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) quoted a spokesman for eastern commander Haji Zaman.
Karzai will take over the reins of Afghanistan on Saturday.
"We will hand over all captured al Qaeda members to them... and not to any foreign government," the spokesman was quoted as saying.
Six more wounded al Qaeda fighters were captured overnight as anti-Taliban forces combed the hills for remnants or bodies of the hardline bin Laden loyalists who had been holding out in the area.
A day earlier, anti-Taliban forces paraded some exhausted al Qaeda prisoners, captured in Tora Bora, as the United States raised its flag in the capital, Kabul, for the first time in 12 years.
There was still no sign of the Saudi-born millionaire militant accused of the worst-ever attack on U.S. soil.
HUNT FOR OMAR, TOO
Fugitive Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was said to be holed up with 500 men in another mountain range to the south where ethnic Pashtun forces were preparing to attack.
U.S. warplanes patrolled the skies above the Tora Bora ridges on Tuesday but no bomb blasts were heard, witnesses said.
"Our clean-up operation in Tora Bora is continuing and we are sending our fighters anywhere where we hear reports of the presence of al Qaeda," the local spokesman said.
"We hope the operation will be completed today," he said. The local commanders have said several times since the weekend that they expect the mopping-up operation to end rapidly.
Front-line commander Haji Zahir has said the anti-Taliban mujahideen -- or holy warriors -- had taken all the main al Qaeda positions.
The anti-Taliban fighters have found more than 200 bodies and have captured more than 30 of the enemy.
Any remaining al Qaeda were likely caught in a tight ribbon of rugged territory beyond the Tora Bora ridges towards the Pakistan border seven km (four miles) to the south.
Pakistan forces are patrolling the border and have picked up close to 100 enemy fighters trying to slip over the frontier.
U.S. officials have said the war in Afghanistan would not end without the capture of bin Laden and his long-time protector, Mullah Omar.
Haji Gullalai, intelligence chief in the former stronghold of Kandahar, said Mullah Omar had been traced to a south-central mountain redoubt, believed to be with 500 men, and ethnic Pashtun forces were preparing to attack.
If caught, Mullah Omar would be hanged, he said.
Karzai flew to Rome on Monday for talks with ex-King Zahir Shah. He was expected to stay for two days.
He said he expected an international peace force to be in place in Afghanistan even before he takes office on Saturday.
Details of the force's makeup have yet to be announced but British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in parliament on Monday London would contribute up to 1,500 troops and was prepared in principle to lead it.
A Western diplomat in Kabul said talks with Afghan officials on arrangements for deployment of the force were "going fine".
"The number will be what is needed for the task and everyone accepts that," the diplomat said. He would not elaborate.
A spokesman for the British diplomatic mission in Kabul said a vanguard of British forces were on standby at an undisclosed location for rapid deployment if the prime minister ordered them to go.
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