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KWAME HOLMAN: U.S. fighters roared off the deck of the aircraft carrier “Theodore Roosevelt” in the Arabian Sea during the night and at dawn today. Defense officials said a planned 80 percent of today’s 95 air strikes would be carried out against Taliban troops protecting Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif on this 24th day of nonstop raids. Witnesses said a huge bomb fell on the Bagram Airport north of Kabul. The smoke plume was monitored by opposition Northern Alliance troops. This footage shows damage to buildings in Kabul and also in nearby southern suburbs, although trading continued at street markets. At the daily Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was joined by his British counterpart, Geoff Hoon. Rumsfeld replied to opinion-page criticism of a slow-paced U.S. military mission, and gave the first official account of U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan.
DONALD RUMSFELD, Defense Secretary: They are military… uniformed military personnel who are assisting with resupply, assisting with communications liaison, assisting with targeting, and providing the kind of very specific information which is helpful to the air effort. And because they are there now, the effort has improved in its effectiveness over what had been the case previously.
KWAME HOLMAN: The two men were quizzed about a possible cessation of bombing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Although there were reports the British favor a pause against U.S. wishes, Rumsfeld and Hoon gave no indication of a split.
GEOFF HOON, Defense Minister, United Kingdom: What I actually said was that we must take those sensitivities into account, and we will take them into account. But that it does not make sense to indicate up front what might be our military intentions during that period, and that still remains my position.
DONALD RUMSFELD: And I said the same thing. I said that we clearly are interested in the views and opinions and sensitivities, and that each country has their own circumstance and their own neighborhood they live in, and we’re respectful of those.
KWAME HOLMAN: Pictures of alleged civilian casualties aired on the Middle East’s al-Jazeera satellite network fueled questions about collateral damage from the bombing campaign. In a speech to the Welsh parliament today, British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the issue.
TONY BLAIR: We do all we can to minimize civilian casualties– unlike, I might say, bin Laden and al- Qaida, who did all they could to maximize civilian casualties. Tragically, there will be some, though I do ask people again to be deeply skeptical about Taliban claims. It is important, therefore, that we never forget why we are doing it; never forget how we felt watching the planes fly into those Twin Towers; never forget those answering message machines; never forget how we felt imagining how mothers told children that they were about to die.
KWAME HOLMAN: Earlier today, the Northern Alliance foreign minister predicted a breakthrough in the coming days as coordination between American and alliance forces increases. He rejected the idea that Pakistan should have a say in who governs its neighbor, Afghanistan.
ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, Foreign Minister, Northern Alliance: There are two separate issues. One is the legitimate interest of a neighboring country, which has to be protected and considered in an agreement about the future of the region. The second thing is playing the same game as in the past in order to preserve its influence with keeping the body of terrorism alive in Afghanistan. That shouldn’t be allowed by any price. And the same game of interference or imposing a puppet regime in Afghanistan by Pakistan should be stopped once for all.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Pakistan’s President said in an interview that growing splits in the Taliban might speed the end of the allied bombing. He also said he would not oppose U.S. attacks on the Taliban during Ramadan if that were necessary.