US air campaign eases, air strikes clear way for opposition forces
WASHINGTON, Oct 12 (AFP) - The US air campaign in Afghanistan eased Friday in a nod to Muslim sensibilities, but US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that US air strikes on Taliban forces were clearing the way for opposition forces on the ground.
Rumsfeld said opposition forces have remained relatively static since the air campaign began six days ago but said that was because US warplanes were bombing nearby forces of the ruling Taliban and the al-Qaeda terrorist group.
"Clearly, at some point, when we feel we have done a certain amount with respect to those Taliban and al-Qaeda military targets, it may very well be more appropriate for ground forces to be moving in areas where we previously have been bombing," he told reporters.
In London, British junior defence minister Lewis Moonie suggested that military activity would be much less over the weekend because of festivals marking the ascension of the Prophet Mohammed.
"We are all aware of the religious significance of the next few days in the Muslim world," Moonie said.
The Pentagon said it suspended its pre-planned air strikes Friday in observance of the Muslim holy day, but said its forces would be ready to strike targets of opportunity.
Rumsfeld declined to say whether the suspension would continue through the weekend or whether US military planning would be affected by the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan next month, saying he did not want to create expectations either way.
Summing up the campaign so far, Rumsfeld said the Taliban and al-Qaeda military forces had been weakened, their communications disrupted and their air defenses damaged but not destroyed.
General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, showed reporters videos of airstrikes on airfields in Kabul and Kandahra and called the campaign so far "a good first step."
On Thursday, US forces struck a training facility and camp, garrison compounds, motor vehicles and ordnance facilities, he said.
Myers said a "limited number" of bunker busting 5,000 pound GBU-28 bombs had been used against underground facilities, including caves.
Rumsfeld said US forces had success in striking concentrations of Taliban and Al-Qaeda troops.
"And we know that they are moving, that their life is more difficult, that the places where they have stayed -- some of them have disappeared, that their circumstance is more costly for them," he said.
"And we get snippets of information that some people who've been helpful to them are less inclined to be helpful," he said.
Opposition forces have seized a provincial capital in central Afghanistan and Taliban forces in the north are believed to have defected to the Northern Alliance, a senior US defense official said Friday.
The official confirmed opposition claims that the town of Chaghcharan, the capital of Ghor province, was seized by opposition forces over the past 48 hours.
He said the action was important because it connects the mainly Shiite forces of Ismail Kahn with those Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam, southern of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the US military believes it "highly possible" that some Taliban forces have defected to anti-Taliban Tajik forces in the north near the town of Kunduz.
But it was unsure of the Northern Alliance's claim that the defections numbers 40 Taliban commanders and 1,200 fighters, the official said, adding that in the past the alliance has tended to make exaggerated claims.
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