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Friday, 16 November, 2001, 18:27 GMT
US 'kills Bin Laden deputy'
US special forces in Khoja Bahauddin, north Afghanistan
US special forces: Targeting al-Qaeda leaders
The US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, has said that American special forces are active in Afghanistan, shooting Taleban fighters and members of the al-Qaeda terror network.

Muhammed Atef
Atef: One of a number of al-Qaeda leaders reported killed
Mr Rumsfeld added that reports that American air strikes near the capital Kabul had killed Mohammed Atef, a key deputy of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, "seem authoritative".

Atef was regarded as one of the key planners behind the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Mr Rumsfeld's comments came as the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported that the Taleban's supreme commander, Mullah Muhammed Omar, had agreed to leave the militia's southern stronghold of Kandahar and turn the city over to two local Pashtun leaders.

However, the Pentagon says that although the Taleban has now lost control of two-thirds of Afghanistan, it does not believe the report.

Click here for map of the battlegrounds

Bombing of targets in Afghanistan by US warplanes continued on Friday, despite the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

During heavy air raids on Kandahar, US jets hit the Taleban foreign ministry building and a mosque.

Eleven civilians were reported to have been killed in the raids, but there has been no independent confirmation of this.

And US Central Command said a mosque in the town of Khowst, eastern Afghanistan, had been hit by a 500-pound bomb, aimed at an al-Qaeda facility, which had gone astray.

In other developments:

  • The UN special envoy for Afghanistan criticises the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance for delays in arranging a crucial meeting on the country's political future
  • Pakistan begins deploying extra troops along part of its border with Afghanistan to prevent armed Taleban fighters from crossing into the country
  • Militias in the eastern Afghan city of Jalabad struggle to agree on how to share power in the area after the Taleban pull out
  • Between 2,000 and 3,000 Taleban fighters - thought to be mainly Arabs and Pakistanis - remain encircled in the northern city of Kunduz by Northern Alliance forces
  • Russia is sending a delegation to Afghanistan to make contact with what Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov called "the leadership of the legitimate government" - a clear reference to the Northern Alliance
  • Aid agency Oxfam has calls for immediate airlifts of food to Afghanistan where continued insecurity is making delivery of supplies increasingly difficult

Mr Rumsfeld said the US special forces in Afghanistan had sometimes met resistance and had to call in air support. Some had been wounded, but none had been killed.

"They're killing Taleban that won't surrender and al-Qaeda that are trying to move from one place to another," he told reporters.

grainy image of men on horseback
Rumsfeld released pictures of what he said were US special forces on horseback
Mr Rumsfeld released pictures of what he said were US special forces on horseback riding with Afghan opposition fighters.

He added that there was every reason to believe that Bin Laden was still in Afghanistan, despite claims that he had fled to neighbouring Pakistan.

He also said US officials were planning to interrogate a number of senior Taleban and al-Qaeda leaders who had been captured in Afghanistan.

As the Taleban are pushed back further by Afghan opposition forces, the United States and its allies are stepping up their presence on the ground.

About 100 British troops have arrived at Bagram airbase near Kabul, to prepare for humanitarian operations.

Sixty French troops are travelling on a similar mission to Uzbekistan, from where they will head to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Fears of faction fighting

There are fears that Afghanistan may be rapidly descending into a collection of fiefdoms run by rival warlords.

The capital Kabul is held by just one faction of the Northern Alliance, the ethnic Tajiks of Jamiat-i Islami.

Correspondents say there could be trouble as troops from other factions arrive in Kabul to stake a claim in any power-sharing arrangements.

The city was torn apart by warring factions 10 years ago, after the Communist government was toppled.




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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Gavin Hewitt
"If confirmed it is a major blow against the Al-Qaeda network"
The BBC's Matt Frei
says they have had eye-witness accounts of Taleban fighters leaving Kandahar
See also:

16 Nov 01 | South Asia
Profile: Muhammed Atef
14 Nov 01 | South Asia
Bin Laden 'safe inside Afghanistan'
16 Nov 01 | Media reports
Media hunt for Bin Laden
15 Nov 01 | South Asia
Interview with Mullah Omar - transcript
16 Nov 01 | South Asia
UN warns former Afghan leader
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