WASHINGTON/KABUL (REUTERS) — President Bush on Thursday offered Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers one last chance to surrender Saudi militant Osama bin Laden and avoid destruction, and the FBI warned of possible new attacks on U.S. soil within the next few days.
At a White House news conference one month after suicide squads slammed hijacked planes into New York and Washington, killing about 5,400 people, Bush said the Taliban could stop the military offensive being directed against them if they obeyed his ultimatum.
“If you cough him up and his people today we’ll reconsider what we’re doing to your country. You still have a second chance. Just bring him in and bring his leaders and lieutenants and other thugs and criminals with him,” Bush said.
As he spoke, U.S. warplanes continued to pound targets in Afghanistan, and Bush said the campaign was making progress.
“We have ruined terrorist training camps, disrupted their communications, weakened the Taliban military, and destroyed most of their air defenses,” Bush said.
“We’re mounting a sustained campaign to drive the terrorists out of their hidden caves and to bring them to justice,” he said. “All missions are being executed according to plan on the military front.”
Bush said the FBI warning that new attacks on U.S. targets at home and abroad may be imminent was not the first and may not be the last such warning.
The president also called on every child in America to donate one dollar to help a child in Afghanistan, part of a continuing U.S. effort to convince Muslims around the world that the United States had no quarrel with the Afghan people but only with their leaders.
Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, who are sheltering Saudi-born Islamic militant bin Laden, Washington’s prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, said more than 140 civilians had been killed in the last 24 hours of the U.S. raids, which began on Sunday.
Bush said he did not know if bin Laden, whom he referred to once during the news conference as “the evil one,” was alive or dead but said he would never find safe haven in Afghanistan or elsewhere ever again. Taliban spokesmen have said he is alive.
“In terms of Mr. bin Laden himself, we’ll get him running,” Bush said. “We’ll smoke him out of his cave, and we’ll get him eventually.”
But he said the United States would reconsider its military campaign if the Taliban surrendered bin Laden and his main supporters.
WARNING HAS NO DETAILS
An FBI statement warning of possible new attacks was brief and short on details.
“Certain information, while not specific as to target, gives the government reason to believe that there may be additional terrorist attacks within the United States and against U.S. interests overseas over the next several days.
“The FBI has again alerted all local law enforcement to be on the highest alert and we call on all people to immediately notify the FBI and local law enforcement of any unusual or suspicious activity,” the statement said.
The statement seemed certain to exacerbate anxiety in a nation already unnerved by last month’s attacks and subsequent scares of possible germ warfare sparked by recent cases of the rare disease anthrax.
Justice Department spokeswoman Mindy Tucker declined to say what had triggered the warning, saying that was classified.
Tucker said the FBI had released at least five or six similar warnings to law enforcement officials since Sept. 11, but it was the first time the agency was making the information available to the general public.
The campaign against the Taliban stoked growing anti-Western anger among Muslims from Jakarta to Cape Town, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair acknowledged that Western countries were in danger of losing the propaganda battle for Arab and Muslim support.
Sir Michael Boyce, chief of the British defense staff, said the war, in which Britain is helping the United States, would stretch into next year. “We must expect at least to go through the winter into next summer at the very least,” he said.
U.S. defense officials said heavy B-52 and B-1 bombers had targeted Taliban troops with cluster bombs that open as they fall to release dozens of high-explosive bomblets.
‘WE DROPPED A LOT OF BOMBS’
The United States announced earlier it had achieved control of the Afghan skies, but Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on Thursday there was still a risk for U.S. aircraft.
“There still is an air-defense threat and it is triple-A (anti-aircraft artillery),” Rumsfeld said, adding that the Taliban also had portable surface-to-air missiles and “one or more” much larger surface-to-air missiles.
According to Taliban figures, the total number of deaths in Afghanistan since Sunday now stands at around 220.
Taliban officials said the latest casualties included 15 people killed in a mosque in Jalalabad, which is ringed by training camps of bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.
Rumsfeld said he regretted any civilian loss of life but added: “There is no question but that when one is engaged militarily that there is going to be unintended loss of life.”
A U.S. Air Force sergeant on duty in the northern Arabian peninsula became the first American fatality of the war when he was killed in an accident.
RAIDS CONTINUE THURSDAY NIGHT
Up to five U.S. jets bombed areas south of Kabul on Thursday night, drawing anti-aircraft fire, witnesses said. They dropped three to four bombs and apparently hit a Taliban munitions dump.
“There are explosions and flashes every 10 seconds or so. I think it must have hit an ammunition site,” one witness said.
The raids followed a night of almost constant bombardment. “It was like an inferno,” one young man said. “The explosions were so huge and so massive that it felt like an earthquake, as if an atomic bomb had been dropped on Kabul.”
Blast after blast ripped through the city. The impact could be felt across the capital, rattling windows and shaking the foundations of homes and offices.
“This is the worst night that we have had so far,” one resident said. “There has been no chance to sleep. I cannot tell you how frightened people are. It is terrible.”
Muslims outraged at the raids on Afghanistan staged protests in Bangladesh, Jordan, South Africa, India, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia.
Alarm rippled among Western expatriates in the Gulf after a Canadian was shot dead in Kuwait in what appeared to be a response to the U.S. air raids. A German couple in Saudi Arabia was attacked with a Molotov cocktail but escaped injury.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton canceled a trip to the United Arab Emirates “due to the current international situation,” organizers said.
A radical Indonesian group — the small but vocal Islamic Defenders Front ? said it would seek to drive Americans and Britons out of the country after the government ignored a deadline to cut ties with the United States.
BLAIR SEES PROPAGANDA DANGER FOR WEST
Blair, touring the Middle East to bolster support for the war on al Qaeda and the Taliban, told reporters: “One thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media and public opinion operations in the Arab and Muslim world. There is a need for us to communicate effectively.”
Pakistan Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, meanwhile, said Islamabad was allowing U.S. forces to use two airports but only for rescue and recovery missions.
“I think, by and large, the U.S. government has met our concerns and concerns of the people of Pakistan,” he said in an interview with BBC television. “They are only using our airspace. There is no American soldier on our soil so far.”
Pakistani troops began patrolling streets in the troubled southwestern city of Quetta on Thursday on the eve of a general strike called by religious parties. The government warned demonstrators it would not tolerate violent protests.
Fleeing residents of the Afghan city of Kandahar said in Pakistan that among the dead were Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar’s 10-year-old son and stepfather, both killed in earlier U.S. raids.
They said the Taliban leader had just left the house in the Sangisar district of the city when a bomb struck it but many members of his family were still inside.
The U.N. World Food Program said it was racing against time to send badly needed food into Afghanistan before winter.
“It is one of the most difficult tasks WFP has faced in its history,” WFP spokesman Francesco Luna said in Islamabad. “The harsh winter is approaching and many human lives are at stake.”
In Washington, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the investigation into three cases of anthrax exposure in Florida was now a criminal matter, but there was still no evidence linking them to the Sept. 11 attacks.