Rumsfeld says raids will continue despite civilian concerns
By Charles Aldinger and Deborah Zabarenko
Tuesday October 30, 8:46 AM
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military will continue bombing Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and al Qaeda hide-outs, despite mounting concern in the region over civilian casualties, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Monday.
"We have a big task and we are hard at it and we intend to continue it," he told reporters when asked about warnings from Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other allies about 23 days of nonstop strikes prompted by last month's attack on America.
"We are patient, we are determined and we're committed," the secretary said, adding that more than 3,000 bombs and missiles had killed some senior leaders of the Taliban and fugitive Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda guerrillas.
"There's no question that Taliban and al Qaeda people, military, have been killed," he told a Pentagon briefing.
"Are there leaders mixed in there? Yes. At what level? Who knows. They're middle to upper-high. But to our knowledge none of the very top six, eight, 10 people have been included in that number."
He said Washington did not intend to halt the opening round of the U.S. war on terrorism, in response to devastating Sept. 11 attacks on Washington and New York City, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan beginning in mid-November.
The secretary spoke after a senior defense official told Reuters the United States was considering the establishment of a base inside Afghanistan to back opposition Northern Alliance forces fighting to overthrow the country's ruling Taliban.
NO AMERICANS CAPTURED
Rumsfeld flatly refused to discuss possible plans for basing American troops in the rugged country, but told reporters in response to reports from the region that no American military personnel had been captured in the three-week-old campaign.
Washington has accused Saudi-born, Afghan-based bin Laden of planning and financing last month's strikes with hijacked airliners against the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center that killed some 5,000 people.
A senior defense official, who asked not to be identified, said Washington was considering establishing a base in Afghanistan from which U.S. troops could support anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces seeking to capture the capital of Kabul and key northern crossroads of Mazar-i-Sharif.
"Sure, that (a base) is one of the things we are looking at," the official told Reuters in response to questions. "We are talking to the Northern Alliance about a lot of things, ways in which me might help them."
USA Today reported on Monday that such a base might be manned by 600 soldiers, providing security, food, medical care and evacuation support for 200 to 300 elite U.S. commandos. It could also be used to launch helicopter strikes against Taliban forces and summon strikes by attack jets and AC-130 gunships.
'WE ARE IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT'
Despite growing worries about bombs and missiles gone awry which have killed numerous Afghan civilians to date, both Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. military Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the air campaign had been effective.
"We are pretty much on our plan. We are in the driver's seat," Myers said.
Rumsfeld again conceded that U.S. bombs and American and British cruise missiles had killed innocent civilians, but said such casualties had always been a part of war.
"We did not start the war, the terrorists started it when they attacked the United States, murdering more than 5,000 innocent Americans," he told reporters.
"The Taliban -- an illegitimate, unelected group of terrorists -- started it when they invited the al Qaeda into Afghanistan and turned their country into a base from which those terrorists could strike out and kill our citizens," Rumsfeld added.
"So let there be no doubt. Responsibility for every single casualty in this war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of Taliban or al Qaeda."
The secretary repeated earlier indications the Pentagon had no intention of halting strikes during Ramadan despite sensitivities in the Muslim world.
"The Taliban and al Qaeda are unlikely to take a holiday," he said in response to questions about Ramadan.
"And given the fact that they have killed thousands of Americans and ... have sworn to continue such attacks, we are under an obligation to defend the American people and we intend to work diligently to do that."
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