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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 21:37 GMT
US denies soldiers captured by Taleban
Refugees in Peshawar have been relating their experiences of the bombing
The number of civilian casualties is in dispute
The United States has dismissed a Taleban claim that it has captured up to 40 US servicemen in Afghanistan.

The US Defence Department told the BBC that the ruling militia had produced no evidence to prove it was holding American prisoners.

Earlier, the deputy Taleban ambassador to Pakistan, Sohail Shaheen, said the regime had caught a number of American soldiers during a US raid on the Taleban's southern stronghold of Kandahar earlier this month.

The US said all its troops returned from the operation safely.

'State terrorism'

The Taleban's claim comes after US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed US troops were operating inside the country.



LATEST STRIKES:
  • B-52 bombers hit Taleban forces north of Kabul
  • Kandahar targeted in heavy raids

  • As the air raids on Afghanistan continued on Wednesday, the Taleban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said 1,500 people had been killed since the bombardment began 25 days ago.

    Ambassador Zaeef denounced the bombing as "the worst type of state terrorism".

    There is no independent confirmation of the casualty figures given by the Taleban.

    The US, while admitting there had been civilian casualties, said Taleban numbers were greatly exaggerated.

    Attack on Kandahar

    Ambassador Zaeef's comments came amid growing anger in the Muslim world at the bombing campaign.

    Earlier on Wednesday American jets launched one of the heaviest raids yet on Kandahar.

    US bombers could be heard flying at high altitudes for several hours of the night.

    The BBC's Simon Ingram, who is among a handful of western journalists allowed into Taleban-controlled Afghanistan for the first time since the US bombing began, said he heard a powerful explosion at about 0520 local time, which shook the windows of his guest house.

    Launch new window : Detailed map
    Click here for a detailed map of the strikes so far

    Witnesses say aircraft also pounded positions held by the Afghan regime just north of Kabul, sending a cloud of smoke hundreds of feet into the air.

    For the first time in the campaign, B-52 bombers were used.

    Ground troops

    Ending weeks of speculation, Mr Rumsfeld revealed on Tuesday that a "modest number" of allied ground troops were inside Afghanistan.

    He said the troops, which are thought to number less than 100, were there to liaise with opposition groups, to co-ordinate the delivery of supplies, and to help US planes find their targets.

    BBC World Affairs correspondent Nick Childs says their deployment seems to mark a shift in US tactics - to provide more direct support for the opposition Northern Alliance forces.

    Mr Rumsfeld said that, of the latest wave of attacks, 80% had been directed at Taleban front-line forces.

    Opposition fighter
    Opposition fighters are playing a waiting game
    And Turkey says it is sending between 40 and 50 military instructors to help the Northern Alliance at the request of the Americans.

    Our correspondent says the timing of the announcement about the presence of US ground troops seems designed to disarm critics of the campaign. The Northern Alliance offers the best hope of tangible military progress.

    UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and senior US officials have been trying to rally public opinion in the West to the bombing campaign.

    Mr Blair said there was a "flood of evidence" confirming the guilt of Saudi-born militant Osama Bin Laden, who has been living under the protection of the Taleban.

    He insisted that the US-led response to the 11 September terror attacks was just and the UK must "stay the course".

    As the US military bombarded Kandahar, music could be heard in the city for the first time in years as the US hijacked radio frequencies.

    The US appears to be trying to focus on Taleban military positions and Bin Laden's suspected underground complexes of tunnels and caves.

    But a medical facility belonging to the Red Crescent society in Kandahar was reported to have been hit, killing at least 11 people, including patients and staff at the facility.

    'Hospital hit'

    In a separate report, the Arabic TV network al-Jazeera reported that Kandahar's hospital had been struck, broadcasting pictures of a bomb crater and injured patients.

    It was not clear whether both reports referred to the same building.

    Our correspondent in Kandahar said journalists were also shown a row of shops that had been hit, which were adjacent to a Taleban ministry.

    He says the city is in virtual darkness, as repeated US air strikes have cut off electricity supplies.

    Residents have said sanitary conditions in Kandahar are appalling, and people have been forced to scavenge for food.

     WATCH/LISTEN
     ON THIS STORY
    The BBC's Simon Ingram
    "There's no panic, just a strange mood of confidence"
    See also:

    30 Oct 01 | UK Politics
    We will not falter, says Blair
    29 Oct 01 | South Asia
    Analysis: Who is winning the war?
    31 Oct 01 | South Asia
    Afghan settlement 'will take time'
    30 Oct 01 | South Asia
    UN says 'don't ignore refugees'
    29 Oct 01 | South Asia
    Taleban tell tribesmen to wait
    28 Oct 01 | Middle East
    Rumsfeld: Iraq may be target
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