US bombers, engaged in their heaviest battering yet of Taliban positions, ruined the country's biggest hydroelectric complex, putting thousands of lives at risk, the ruling Muslim militia said.
The non-stop pounding of front lines, one day after B-52 bombers were seen in action for the first time over the heavily fortified Taliban positions, brought a smile to the faces of opposition commanders who have been critical so far of the scope of the US air raids.
In the United States meanwhile Thursday, where anthrax-by-mail bioterror attacks claimed their fourth death, US President George W. Bush reiterated that new terror assaults were imminent on US soil, saying: "I put the country on alert for a reason."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally, was in talks with King Abdullah II of Jordan on the third leg of a Middle East tour, which the British press agreed Thursday got off to a disastrous start.
Taliban Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told the Afghan Islamic Press news agency that seven US raids Wednesday and Thursday severely damaged the Kajaki dam and hydroelectricity plant in the southern province of Helmand, completely knocking out the power supplies of Kandahar and Lashkarga.
"So far water has not started gushing out of the dam but any further bombing will destroy the dam," Muttaqi said. "It may cause widespread flooding, putting at risk the lives of thousands of people."
Kajaki, 90 kilometers (56 miles) northwest of Kandahar, contains 2.7 billion cubic meters of water. It normally produces 150,000 kilowatts of electricity per hour and irrigates land farmed by 75,000 families in a desert area where water is a precious commodity, the minister said.
"America wants to destroy everything in Afghanistan," he said. "There are no military installations in Kajaki, not even in the district."
Another Taliban spokesman, Qari Fazal Rabi, said in Kabul: "Winter is coming and the Americans want to deprive Afghans of all living facilities."
"Today is a better day," a delighted opposition commander Alu Zaqi commented on the relentless US battering of Taliban front lines. "If this keeps going, the Taliban will be weakened and the front lines will collapse."
But another commander, General Hussein Anwari, head of a small Shiite faction and a member of the fractious Northern Alliance's leadership council, said opposition forces were still not ready to attack Kabul.
"The American raids are not sufficient, and are not sufficiently concentrated," he complained. "And we need ammunition and other equipment."
He told AFP the US had yet to provide any aid in materiel, saying military equipment received recently from Russia had been paid for before September 11, when terrorist attacks on the United States killed some 5,000 people.
Wave after wave of US bombers, including giant B-52s, carpet bombed frontlines in northern Afghanistan for more than four hours Thursday, dropping their thunderous payloads on Taliban positions close to the Tajik border.
The ground shook and windows shattered as far away as Khwaja Bahauddin, an opposition-held town 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Taliban forward positions, reporters in the region said.
The Taliban said ground battles also raged with US-backed Northern Alliance opposition forces in the Dara-e-Souf valley, 70 km (45 miles) south of Mazar-i-Sharif.
Rabi said the Northern Alliance launched an infantry assault Wednesday evening, aiming to overrun Taliban hilltops battered by US jets earlier in the day.
Meanwhile the death in New York from respiratory anthrax of Kathy Nguyen, 61, had investigators stymied because the Manhattan hospital employee had no known links with the postal service, the media or government -- prime targets of an anthrax-laced letter campaign US officials blame on unidentified terrorists.
Four people have now died from anthrax infections and a dozen others are sick with the disease.
Bush, speaking two days after top officials warned that attacks on US interests at home and abroad could come "over the next week," said: "This is a very unusual period in American history. We've never been attacked like this before. We're still being attacked.
"I want our law enforcement officials to know we had some information that made it necessary for us to protect the United States' assets, to protect areas that might be vulnerable," Bush said.
The British media was unanimous Thursday in saying the first visit to Damascus Wednesday by Blair, an enthusiastic advocate of the military action in Afghanistan to punish perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, was a blow to the international coalition against terrorism.
The Damascus trip was the first leg of Blair's Middle East tour, and a hoped for agreement on the anti-terror campaign with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad failed to materialize.
Copyright © 2001 AFP