Taliban talk defiance as planes fly over Kabul
By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, Oct 21 (Reuters) - In a special meeting called on Sunday to discuss Afghanistan's defence strategy after the first U.S. commando raid on their soil, the ruling Taliban said they had decided to distribute heavy weapons across the land.
The third week of strikes began with fierce bombing raids to the north of Kabul that officials said killed 18 people, including eight members of a single family at breakfast time and the entire family of a three-year-old girl who lay in hospital with head injuries.
The cabinet decided to hand out more rocket launchers, heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns in towns, villages and districts to respond effectively to U.S. raids on the ground, Taliban Education Minister Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi told Reuters.
The meeting, chaired by Mullah Mohammad Hassan, the military chief of staff and deputy to Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, expressed satisfaction at the response to Friday's midnight raid by U.S. special forces near the southern city of Kandahar, and resolved to defend themselves.
"The decision was made to mobilise and equip people in all districts, villages and provinces against the commando attack of America," Muttaqi said. "We have enough arms to distribute to people for this cause."
The U.S. bombing blitz of targets of the ruling hardline Taliban militia, and installations suspected of being linked to the man they are protecting, Saudi-born radical Osama bin Laden, entered its third week on Sunday.
The cabinet also appealed to the Islamic world to send urgent aid and relief for the civilian casualties.
No exact number of civilian casualties is known but the Taliban say up to 900 have been killed in the attacks by the U.S.-led forces on landlocked Afghanistan since October 7.
No independent figures were available, but witnesses have seen several dozen dead and wounded in Kabul alone. Information Ministry official Abdul Hanan Himat said 18 civilians, including women and children, had been killed and 23 wounded in the morning raids.
The morning raids by U.S. planes had appeared to target the entrenched positions of the Taliban front line north of Kabul, facing the opposition Northern Alliance. Taliban fighters fired back mostly with mobile truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns that can more easily evade attack.
Most of their ground air-defences have already been destroyed in two weeks of U.S. air attacks, the Pentagon has said. A Northern Alliance commander said the U.S. jets struck targets just behind Taliban frontlines. At least two warplanes roared high over the lush Shomali Plain that separates the ruling Taliban militia from the Northern Alliance opposition.
A plume of black smoke could be seen in the distance from the outskirts of the Alliance stronghold of Charikar. But there was no sign that the opposition had any plans to advance.
And the opposition said a planned Taliban counteroffensive near the strategic northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif had not materialised, with neither side able to break the standoff.
Forces of the Northern Alliance took up positions about six km (four miles) from the Taliban-held city about one week ago, but threatened advances have yet to appear and Taliban efforts to break the deadlock have also fallen flat.
Muttaqi breathed defiance, claiming advances against other opposition positions and saying he believed Taliban resistance to the Friday night U.S. ground raid near the souther Taliban powerbase, Kandahar, had killed 20 to 25 U.S. commandos.
U.S. defence officials have said two service personnel were killed when their helicopter crashed on landing in Pakistan and two were slightly hurt in the parachute drop into Afghanistan.
He insisted Taliban fighters had downed the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade. "Our message to the Americans is that if they want to be safe they mustn't come to Afghanistan," Muttaqi said.
The Taliban said they were getting set to meet any more U.S. ground incursions, which the Pentagon has promised are coming.
"Their decision on war is a wrong one. It is an un-ideal aim and they should not sacrifice themselves for it and they should not shed the blood of Afghans," Muttaqi said. "Afghans have full preparations for a ground attack and Americans will a suffer high death toll in the ground assault," he said.
The raid sparked the latest phase of a campaign that the United States says will only end with the death or capture of bin Laden and his associates and the overthrow of the Taliban rulers who have been protecting him since 1996.
In a sign of their nervousness, officials said Taliban authorities had executed five men in the key northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for spying for the United States.
"Two commanders by the name of Saboor and Yosuf along with their three men were executed for acts of sabotage, provoking people and spying for the Americans," said Himat.
The Americans have attacked airports, Taliban military bases and training camps operated by the al Qaeda network, but bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar remained safe, officials say.
Fleeing the blistering bombardment, a wave of 5,000 refugees on Saturday fled over the border at Chaman into Pakistan -- the largest number to cross the border, which is effectively closed to those without proper papers, in a single day since the raids began.
Residents of Kabul cannot leave so easily. "Tell them to drop one bomb of mass destruction so we can die all at once," wailed one woman at a Kabul hospital. In Kabul's children's hospital, a tiny three-year-old girl wept with pain, her head bound with bloodstained bandages.
"She has no one left and we don't know what to do with her," said a woman standing next to her bed. "Her aunt and uncle are both busy in the funeral of her parents, her two sisters and her brother."
In the next bed lay a little boy who had lost his four brothers and his parents in the morning raids. His two sisters were in critical condition. "He is unconscious and God knows what he will think when he comes to," said the woman. "Who will take care of these people?"
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