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U.S. Steps Up Support for Anti-Taliban Forces

Rumsfeld told reporters the number of special forces troops has increased “about two and a half times” since last week, adding, “there are others prepared to go in as soon as weather and circumstances on the ground permit.”

Troops stationed in Afghanistan are assisting in the planning of U.S. airstrikes and are working to supply anti-Taliban groups with weapons, ammunition, blankets and other supplies they need to battle the ruling Taliban regime, who the U.S. accuses of harboring alleged terrorist Osama bin Laden.

“One would hope that by providing assistance and … by doing a good deal of damage to the forces they oppose … we will see a greater degree of cohesion on [the part of opposition groups] and that we will see more success,” Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing.

Meanwhile, in the first sign of major progress on the ground, opposition forces said today that they captured three villages near the key city of Mazar-e-Sharif in a pre-dawn assault.

“We attacked while the Americans were bombing,” opposition spokesman Ashraf Nadeem said in a satellite telephone interview. “It was not only us who killed. It was mostly the Americans.”

Nadeem said some 300 Taliban fighters were killed in the five-hour battle that ensued, while 300 others defected to the opposition. Nadeem also said the Taliban has reinforced their front lines with nearly 400 fresh troops, including Arab and Pakistani volunteers.

Opposition forces said they gained control of the Zari Bazar, Baluch and Wayemar areas near Keshendeh, about 25 miles south of Mazar-e-Sharif.

There was no immediate Taliban response to the casualty or defection claims, and no independent source could verify the towns had been captured. The Pentagon was uncertain what to make of the opposition’s reports.

“There are so many reports about this village or that village,” Rumsfeld said. “I like to let the dust settle” before determining the results.

Treacherous weather conditions have worked against several American efforts in the region. Snow and icy runways have prevented the Pentagon from adding even more special forces troops to the ground contingent, while two U.S. predator spy drones crashed over Afghanistan due to freezing rain, officials said.

The Pentagon denied Taliban claims the helicopters had been downed by anti-aircraft fire, and Rumsfeld today dismissed claims a U.S. helicopter had crashed in southwest Pakistan on Sunday.

Air assaults continue

On the 31st day of the the U.S. Military campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. warplanes continued to bombard Taliban positions around Mazar-e-Sharif and north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, where Taliban troops fired upon the opposition-held Bagram airbase, rendering it useless.

Opposition leaders say they want the U.S. to concentrate bombing runs on Taliban positions overlooking the Bagram airbase so that it can once again be used without fear of Taliban tank fire.

“If the tanks can be taken out, then it means we are closer to using Bagram for takeoffs and landings,” Northern Alliance commander Mustafah said.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has introduced one of the biggest weapons in the American arsenal to the war in Afghanistan. The “daisy cutter” is a 15,000-pound bomb that explodes about 3 feet above ground and creates a fireball that incinerates everything within 600 yards.

“The purpose is to kill people,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon briefing. Defense officials expect to use the bomb against Taliban troops on the front lines.

The U.S. has also unleashed a new propaganda campaign. Warplanes are now dropping leaflets into Afghanistan that read “We are watching!” next to pictures of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and a license plate suspected to belong to a vehicle he uses.

Addressing a conference of Eastern European leaders in Warsaw, Poland, President Bush today said that, in addition to biological and chemical agents, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network was seeking nuclear weapons to add to its arsenal.

“They’re seeking chemical, biological and nuclear weapons,” the president said. “Given the means, our enemies would be a threat to every nation and eventually, to civilization itself.”

Mr. Bush called on the members of the U.S.-led anti-terrorism coalition to become more actively involved in the war effort.

French President Jacques Chirac today said 2,000 French troops are now involved in military operation for the war. Chirac was in Washington today to discuss anti-terror efforts with President Bush.

Also today, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he would contribute as many as 3,900 soldiers to the campaign in Afghanistan, but did not specify a deployment date.

The U.S. requested Germany make available special forces, medical staff, transport planes and naval forces, as well as Fuchs armored vehicles, said to be the world’s best at detecting nuclear, chemical and biological contamination. Germany was not asked to participate in air raids or commit ground troops long-term, Schroeder said.

If German troops are deployed, it will be the first time German forces have fought outside of Europe since World War II.

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