US military leaders acknowledged using controversial cluster bombs in Afghanistan, as they ran into a broadside of criticism, with claims of mounting civilian casualties and opposition complaints the bombings were ineffective.
Eleven explosions rocked the Afghan capital of Kabul as US jets launched a heavy overnight bombing raid on the ruling Taliban militia, a resident said.
In the first round of bombings, anti-aircraft fire was heard, but the Taliban did not return fire after another round some five hours later.
In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the strongest indication yet British troops would soon be deployed in the campaign, and officials said a formal announcement would likely be made on Friday.
Americans were told to brace for a long, tough war that may not achieve one of its prime targets, the capture of Afghanistan-based Osama bin Laden, who is blamed for the September 11 attacks in the United States that killed about 5,000 people.
On the homefront, the US Congress passed an anti-terrorism bill giving the government expanded powers to track suspected terrorists, while a new anthrax victim was detected in a postal facility handling mail for the State Department.
In Afghanistan, aid officials warned of an impending humanitarian disaster as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the bombing.
UN spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker said US cluster bombs killed eight people when they hit a village in the west of the country on Monday night, and another person had been killed later after picking up a bomblet.
The controversial weapon scatters hundreds of fist-sized high-explosive bomblets, some of which explode on impact and some of which lie on the ground like anti-personnel mines.
A Taliban spokesman said the bombs had been used again on frontline positions overnight.
Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the bombs were used.
The Taliban claimed bombing overnight killed at least 36 more civilians, including an entire busload of people, and maintain more than 1,000 have died so far -- a figure hotly disputed by Washington.
The head of the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) Jakob Kellenberger also said Thursday civilian deaths were mounting.
The Pentagon has acknowledged some of the bombs landed away from their targets, but insists the Taliban figures are sheer propaganda.
"They have actively gone out and lied about the civilian casualties and taken the press to places where they would see things that they contended were something other than what they really were. It is not an easy job when those images are all across the globe," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in an interview with USA Today.
The Taliban said overnight attacks hit some of their positions protecting the approach to the strategically important northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif and near the Bagram airbase north of Kabul.
But opposition commanders said the bombing campaign, which started on October 7, had been largely ineffective.
"So far the level of pressure on the Taliban is not such that they will be demoralized, lay down their weapons and run away," said Abdullah Abdullah, foreign minister of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
He said the limited number of US air attacks on Taliban frontlines north of Kabul, was provoking growing frustration in opposition ranks.
"Since there is a massive concentration of Taliban at the frontlines, if there was intense bombing of the front there would be better results," Abdullah told reporters.
As criticism of the campaign mounted, Rumsfeld said President George W. Bush's order to get bin Laden "dead or alive" may never be carried out.
"He's got a lot of money, he's got a lot of people who support him and I just don't know whether we will be successful," Rumsfeld told USA Today. At a news conference later Thursday, the minister backtracked, saying "I think we're going to get him."
He also reiterated the military campaign not only targeted bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, but also the ruling militia.
He said it was clear the Taliban support al-Qaeda's terrorist activities and "are harmful to the Afghan people." Therefore "they have to be replaced."
In the Pakistani city of Peshawar a conference of 1,000 exiled Afghan community leaders planning an interim government to replace the Taliban called for an end to the bombing.
As the humanitarian crisis deepened, Uzbekistan reopened its border with Afghanistan, which has been shut since 1998, to UN aid agencies to allow them to ferry supplies across the Amudarya River.
In the United States, Congress passed an anti-terrorism bill that expands police and federal surveillance powers as well as tightening immigration and banking policies. Bush is expected to sign the bill into law later this week.
Copyright © 2001 AFP