CHARIKAR, Afghanistan -- The United States launched its retaliation against terrorism Sunday, striking at the heart of Osama bin Laden's adopted nation and his Taliban supporters with a thundering attack of bombs from the air and missiles from the sea.
Bin Laden's whereabouts were unknown. He survived the attack, however, as did Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, according to a Taliban representative in Pakistan. He said there were civilian casualties. There were no reported American losses.
The U.S. attacks, aided by British warships, lit the sky like fireworks beginning at 9:20 p.m. local time in Kabul, the Afghan capital. In the southern city of Kandahar, the barrage reportedly destroyed the control tower and radar facilities at the airport and hit the Taliban national headquarters downtown. Smoke was said to be billowing from Omar's home.
Bombs also struck in the vicinity of Jalalabad, near the Pakistani border, where Bin Laden operates a training camp.
Terrified refugees fled all three cities, including old men piggy-backing children and pushing wheelbarrows filled with belongings and women in full-length burkas clutching babies and balancing bundles on their heads.
The flash and thunder could be seen and heard in this opposition-held town about 35 miles north of Kabul, where excited anti-Taliban fighters and their families flowed into the streets.
There were reports of chaos in Kabul as the city was plunged into darkness. Taliban antiaircraft flak and huge explosions were clearly visible.
The retaliation came nearly a month after terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, leaving about 5,600 people dead or missing. The United States had repeatedly demanded that the Taliban hand over Bin Laden and his associates, the prime suspects in the terrorist attacks.
"Now the Taliban will pay a price," President Bush told a worldwide television audience from Washington shortly after the first American missiles struck. "Today we focus on Afghanistan, but the battle is broader. . . . We will not waver, we will not tire. We will not falter, and we will not fail."
In a chilling counterpoint, Bin Laden released a videotape in which he exulted over the Sept. 11 hijackings, declaring that the United States is "full of terror and fear, from north to south, east to west."
He vowed that "America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Mohammed, peace be upon him."
The videotape, broadcast by a television network in the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, showed Bin Laden, standing in fatigues with an automatic weapon beside him. The tape was made in daylight, showing that Bin Laden delivered his statement to a camera sometime before U.S. and British forces launched their nighttime attack.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the attack was intended to weaken the Taliban, destroy Bin Laden's base of operations and "acquire intelligence to facilitate further operations." Pentagon officials said bombing might continue for several days.
The retaliatory strike was mounted by 15 land-based aircraft, including long-range B-2 stealth bombers flying from Whiteman Air Force Base near Kansas City, Mo., and 25 other planes launched from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea. It started at 9:20 a.m. PDT, and included attacks by B-1 Lancers and B-52 bombers.
In addition, American and British ships and submarines launched 50 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Prime Minister Tony Blair said British aircraft would join the attack "in the coming days." Referring to the Taliban, he said: "They were given the choice of siding with justice or siding with terror. They chose terror."
The American aircraft used 500-pound gravity bombs as well as computer-guided bombs to pound Bin Laden's network of Al Qaeda training camps in the forbidding Afghan countryside.
They also struck at the Taliban's air defenses and its small fleet of warplanes.
At the same time, U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes began dropping food, medical and other supplies inside Afghanistan to aid displaced Afghan civilians.
A senior official in the Afghan opposition, the Northern Alliance, said the United States and Britain would mount their assault for a week, assess the damage, monitor Taliban troop and hardware movements, then sum up the results and tell the alliance to attack.
In other developments:
* Britain, Germany, France and Canada said their armed forces would participate in the U.S.-led offensive against terrorism. Bush said Australia had pledged its forces as well.
* Concerned about possible terrorist reprisals, U.S. officials further tightened security at airports, harbors and government buildings. The FBI urged law enforcement agencies to adopt the "highest level of vigilance." The State Department issued a "worldwide caution" to travelers and closed the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia.
* As Israelis lined up for gas masks, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres praised Bush for his "courageous decision" to launch the attacks. There was no immediate reaction from the Palestinian Authority's Yasser Arafat.
* A senior State Department official said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will visit Pakistan and India at the end of this week to encourage both countries to stand firm in the U.S.-British anti-terrorist coalition. Powell's most delicate task, the official said, will be maintaining a balance between the two rival nations, each equipped with nuclear weapons.
Explosions Signal Attack in Kabul
In Kabul, the attack came in three waves. Five explosions--presumably cruise missile strikes--provoked gales of antiaircraft fire. A two-hour electrical blackout ensued.
The first of the blasts seemed to come from the southwest of the city, where the Darulaman Palace, an ancient royal residence, and the Balahisar Fort, an old Mogul-style installation, are situated.
The antiaircraft firing tapered off for a few minutes but resumed after a jet aircraft was heard passing over the city. Early Monday, a lone aircraft reportedly dropped one bomb on the northern edge of Kabul. An explosion shook the area, setting off another burst of antiaircraft fire.
The Islamabad-based Afghan Islamic Press agency, a private news organization, quoted the Taliban as saying American planes had bombed areas near the Kabul airport in the northern part of the city. It added that "huge smoke is rising near Kabul airport."
A Taliban spokesman in the southern city of Kandahar reportedly said all provincial airports in the country appeared to have been targeted, "but we have not suffered any major damage."
Cruise missiles and aircraft struck the Taliban's administrative headquarters in Kandahar, as well as Omar's compound and Bin Laden's last reported home, according to reports attributed to Afghan sources.
In Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador, told reporters: "By the grace of God, Mullah Omar and Bin Laden are alive." He did not give details or say whether either leader was near the scene of the attacks.
Abdullah Mansouri, an official in charge of Kandahar airport, said that at least three jet fighters bombarded the airport at 8:45 p.m., but the explosions were at a distance and did not harm the runway.
"After the attack, thousands of people came out from their homes and they hurried to escape from Kandahar--children, women and old people," he said. "They were trying to go to the border. There is panic throughout Kandahar city."
In Jalalabad, sources reached by telephone from Islamabad said three loud explosions could be heard. One seemed to be coming from the area of Farmada, a Bin Laden training camp about 12 miles south of the city.
In Quetta, a southwestern Pakistani city that is home to many Afghan refugees and Taliban sympathizers, officials ordered nomads to abandon their tent camps close to the Sanguli military air base just a few hours before the attack began. Police also stopped journalists from driving past the facility, citing security concerns.
An hour after the attacks began, police declared a state of emergency in Quetta. But by midmorning Monday, thousands of people took to the streets and burned tires. Foreigners were confined to the city's main hotel.
The sea attack began with a volley of Tomahawk cruise missiles from naval vessels in the Arabian Sea, including the U.S. Navy destroyer John Paul Jones. Another destroyer and cruiser fired missiles, as did an American submarine and a British submarine.
As darkness fell--at 6:30 p.m. local time--U.S. aircraft carriers launched refueling tankers, long-range surveillance aircraft and bomb-laden F/A 18 Hornets and F-14 Tomcats.
The commander of one Tomcat squadron, returning to the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, said: "To me, tonight was about giving America back the confidence." The commander, whose name with withheld under Defense Department rules, said he and his co-pilot made a 1,400-mile-round-trip bombing run to Kabul.
The pilots said the plane came under fire from antiaircraft and surface-to-air missiles. It was "like sitting in the tree having a kid shoot bottle rockets at you," he said.
"We've done a lot of study of the area," the pilot said. "We were on night-vision goggle devices. You pick up illumination of the city and the area. You read about the dispersal of the refugees. They haven't gone that far."
He said the refugees appeared to be in camps surrounding the city to the west and the north.
The pilot said avoiding civilian casualties was critical. "There [was] a number of targets that were pulled off the list due to collateral damage estimates," he said. "You see, the initial start of this campaign was all aimed at their hardware. People were not purposely targeted tonight."
Almost immediately after the attacks began, battles broke out between Taliban and opposition forces around Bagram, 22 miles north of Kabul. Bagram is the site of a strategic air base held by the opposition Northern Alliance but that has been useless because it is on the front line.
Flashes illuminated the clear night sky, as the Northern Alliance fired volleys from Soviet-made multiple-rocket launchers at Taliban positions.
Taliban fighters in the hills near Charikar shelled the Northern Alliance positions and fired mortars at a road crowded with refugees from villages close to the front line.
But Taliban tanks near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif reportedly came under American fire in an area where a Northern Alliance commander was preparing a major offensive.
The atmosphere in Northern Alliance areas was exuberant, with happy soldiers shouting, "Ours!" when the Soviet-made missiles, with a 25-mile range, were launched in explosive orange bursts at enemy positions.
A Northern Alliance soldier at a military checkpoint in Charikar gave passing reporters the thumbs-up sign to express his delight at the U.S. airstrikes.
"We're very glad. People are so happy that the Taliban are being killed," said a 23-year-old fighter guarding the Charikar bazaar, who identified himself as Agram. "People are celebrating."
Among the crowds of people fleeing along New Kabul Road from the Bagram area to Charikar was 15-year-old Abdul Hasib, who was carrying his 3-year-old sister, Aruzu, on the handlebars of his bicycle.
"It all started. It's war," he said. "We heard huge explosions in Kabul. Then we saw tracers going high up in the sky.
"The Taliban began to shoot at our village, mortars and cannons. They hit a lot of houses. Very many people were leaving," he said, as several volleys of Northern Alliance missiles erupted.
Refugees, frightened and uncertain where to go, knocked on doors in Charikar seeking safety.
Anti-Taliban Fighters Watch and Listen
A group of 20 front-line anti-Taliban fighters on a rest break from war in a house outside Charikar were unable to sleep. They sat on the roof of their two-story mud house, watching the horizon where Kabul lay, and listening to radio reports.
One of them, Kalandar, 36, who has five children and has been fighting for 20 years, could not wipe the smile off his face over the attacks on the Taliban.
"They're our guns! They're shooting at the Taliban outside Bagram," he crowed. The Northern Alliance wants to capture Taliban positions in the hills around Bagram so that the airport can be used.
"Peace will come with the help of war, because all the foreigners are on our side," Kalandar said.
The Taliban called the U.S.-British assault a terrorist attack and vowed that America "will never achieve its goal." The statement was issued by Zaeef, the ambassador to Pakistan. Later, Taliban Deputy Defense Minister Mullah Noor Ali said, "The people of Afghanistan will resist. They will never accept the rule of infidels."
The Pakistani government, which has thrown its support to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, said it regretted that diplomatic efforts did not succeed and called for the military action to remain "clearly targeted."
Pakistan had been the Taliban's closest ally until the Sept. 11 attacks. But Pakistani government spokesman Rashid Qureshi confirmed that Pakistan's airspace was used by U.S. and British forces to launch their attacks.
Aware of the strength of pro-Taliban political parties in Quetta, some of which had openly pledged to mount holy war against Western targets in Pakistan in case of an attack in Afghanistan, Pakistani anti-terrorism police in Quetta began patrolling the streets of the city almost as soon as the attacks began.
City authorities also announced the closing of schools for the next three days.
Many people interviewed on the streets in the evening, especially young people, were critical of the attack and portrayed it as an assault on Islam. "No Muslim will support these attacks. God willing, the Taliban will succeed," said Abdul Hakim, a 21-year-old office clerk. Said another man, identifying himself as Abu Usama, 27: "America has started it, and Muslims will finish it."
But a businessman, Amin Ullah, 50, was strongly supportive of Bush's actions. "I support the U.S. attack against terrorism, against terrorists and their camps," he said. "America should destroy the terrorist camps throughout the world and then an ordinary person can sleep soundly."
Because many residents of Quetta are ethnic Pashtun, the same ethnic group as Omar and the rest of the Taliban leadership in Kandahar, there is a strong lobby here for the Taliban movement, especially in the extensive Afghan refugee neighborhoods. But among the Pashtun, there is also a strong Afghan nationalist element fiercely opposed to the Taliban and their harsh religious based ideology, which they term "barbaric."
The leading anti-Taliban Pashtun party, the Pashthoonkhwa Milli Awami, staged a mass march and rally after the retaliation, with about 8,000 people attending. They applauded the U.S. war on terrorism and called for the overthrow of the Taliban regime and an interim government under the former monarch of Afghanistan, King Zaher Shah.
Cheney Moved, Security Tightens in Washington
Washington moved quickly to war footing. As the retaliation began, Vice President Dick Cheney was moved to a secure location to ensure presidential succession in the event of a counterattack.
In his televised statement announcing the retaliation, Bush said the "carefully targeted actions" marked the start of "sustained, comprehensive and relentless operations" to drive Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda terrorist network out of hideouts in Afghanistan and bring them to justice.
He made clear that the attacks were also aimed at the Taliban.
"More than two weeks ago, I gave Taliban leaders a series of clear and specific demands: Close terrorist training camps. Hand over leaders of the Al Qaeda network and return all foreign nationals, including American citizens unjustly detained in their country," Bush said. "None of these demands were met."
Defense Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters that the bombing runs and missile strikes were designed to destroy Taliban air defenses, command centers, communications facilities and key terrorist sites. The United States hopes to "alter the military balance over time by denying to the Taliban its offensive systems that hamper the progress of the various opposition forces," Rumsfeld said.
"Our goal is to make [opposition forces] more successful," he said.
Less than two hours after the airstrikes began, the U.S. Air Force began dropping 37,000 packages of humanitarian food rations, medicine and medical supplies to refugees within Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld said the airdrops included leaflets designed to explain to the Afghan people that the U.S. and Britain were not conducting war on them or on Islam.
"To say that these attacks are in any way against Afghanistan or the Afghan people is flat wrong," he said. "While our raids today focus on the Taliban and the foreign terrorists in Afghanistan, our aim remains much broader. Our objective is to defeat those who use terrorism and those who house or support them."
Bush said the bombs and missiles were only the most visible elements of a war on terrorism "that has already been joined through diplomacy, intelligence, the freezing of financial assets and the arrests of known terrorists by law enforcement agents in 38 countries."
He emphasized the breadth of the U.S.-led coalition.
"More than 40 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and across Asia have granted air transit or landing rights," Bush said. "Many more have shared intelligence. We are supported by the collective will of the world."
In addition to the B-2s that flew from the Whiteman base in Missouri, aircraft including B-1 and B-52 heavy bombers flew into the attack from the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
The bombers dropped mainly high-tech munitions designed to hit a precisely identified target, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. But he said conventional bombs were also used.
There were no reports that ground forces in the region, including members of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division in Uzbekistan, were involved. Neither, apparently, were any special operations commandos believed to be in the area.
Rumsfeld told reporters that Bin Laden was not specifically targeted.
"This is not about a single individual," he said. "It's about an entire terrorist network and multiple terrorist networks across the globe."
World Leaders Told of Imminent Attack
In the hours before the airstrikes, Bush and Cheney worked the phones, informing key European, Israeli and other allies of the U.S. intentions and collecting pledges of concrete military support.
With British forces involved in the initial raids, Prime Minister Blair quickly appeared on national television in London to tell Britons they too were at war and that their government would act "with reason and resolve."
"I can confirm that UK forces are engaged in this action," Blair said. "No country lightly commits forces to military action and the inevitable risks involved."
Israel said it received a one-hour warning of the attacks, when Bush phoned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The Jewish state has requested longer lead time if Iraq is to be hit in a later phase of the military campaign.
Israelis are especially nervous that Iraq may retaliate by launching missiles at Israel, as it did during the Gulf War a decade ago.
Sharon's office said Israel was "assisting but not participating" in the war effort, an apparent allusion to sharing of intelligence.
Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Marjorie Miller in London, Carol J. Williams in Berlin, David Zucchino in Paris, Maura Reynolds in Moscow, Tracy Wilkinson in Jerusalem, James Gerstenzang, Norman Kempster, Esther Schrader and Robin Wright in Washington, and Edward J. Boyer, Richard E. Meyer and Tim Rutten in Los Angeles. Baltimore Sun staff writer Bill Glauber aboard the Carl Vinson also contributed.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times