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Afghans cheer as US jets hit Taliban
By Julius Strauss in Julum Khor, northern Afghanistan
THE Kukcha estuary was a picture of bucolic charm late yesterday afternoon. The water swirled and eddied over stony shoals, catching the soft autumn light. On the bank tiny, unshod boys rode bareback on spirited ponies.
'A jet, a jet': Northern Alliance fighters spot an American warplane as they cross the Kukcha river yesterday. The ferrymen, who run a service with half a dozen small rafts made from the inner tubes of lorries tied to wooden frames, were chatting lazily.
Suddenly the peace was shattered as a sharp-eyed youth shouted and pointed at the sky. To the east a tiny gun-metal object was moving rapidly below the high cirrus clouds. As we watched, the jet rolled on to its back then rolled again, as if the pilot was showing off his prowess. Then a small missile fell in a perfect arc. It disappeared into a cloud bank. Two seconds passed. Then, from the murky ridgeline in the distance, there was a bright orange flash.
Smoke billowed from the spot and the men and children of the Kukcha turned to stare. "It hit, it hit," one said excitedly. "Thank you, America," said another, dancing for joy. For the people of Mawara-e-Kukcha, which comprises the four provinces along the river, yesterday was a day to celebrate.
For months they have been harried by Taliban artillery and jets which shelled their settlements. Last winter the Taliban briefly seized the west bank before being driven back in an offensive that cost the Northern Alliance 700 men.
Although American air strikes began on Sunday, only four bombs were dropped and with mixed accuracy. On Monday the jets didn't return. Locals began to mutter that maybe the strikes were over. Yesterday the planes returned with a vengeance. In a dozen successive sorties, aircraft appeared in the east. They soared overhead, the roar of the afterburners trailing far behind, then delivered their deadly charges apparently with pinpoint accuracy.
Each time a cheer went up along the river as villagers and horsemen gathered to watch. They announced the names of the positions hit: Kala Kata, Chaghatai, Puza Pol-e-Khomri . . .Our driver Abdullah, a swarthy ethnic Turkmen and a commander in his own right, tuned into the radio frequency of his unit serving on the front line. "All the bombs are good," he announced with a broad smile. "They are all on target and have hit the Taliban's biggest positions. My men are celebrating."
From across the river, the outline of a ferry appeared bearing five soldiers. As they clambered ashore, they too stared at the sky, pointing. One had a brightly-coloured carpet rolled up and strapped to his back, another carried a small petroleum lamp. Four had Kalashnikovs, the fifth an old-fashioned bazooka.
Abdullah continued to talk into his radio. He said: "Our spies say Sunday's strikes killed 70 Taliban and injured 30 more. Today the number will be much higher." With barely an hour of daylight left we decided to try a closer view. There was no time to ford the river with horses but Abdullah volunteered to try the crossing in his Russian four-wheel-drive vehicle.
He strapped a plastic bag over the car's distributor cap and engaged a low gear. As the car sank into the river, the wheels disappeared. Then several inches of water came spilling in. But the engine kept ticking. On the other side, soldiers had gathered on mounds and hilltops to watch the bombing. Some fired their assault rifles in the air to celebrate. On a dusty road two women covered by bright red scarves scurried home. A man led two camels stacked high with firewood.
Nearer the front line soldiers were milling around despite orders to stay underground in case of a stray bomb. "Are you the men who guide the missiles in?" asked Taj Muhamad, 27. "The targeting was perfect. Ten bombs, two for each Taliban position."
Nearby three small, dirty children and an old man sold biscuits, tea and sweets from a streetside stall, oblivious to the danger. A man with a green scarf shouted "jet, jet" as another plane streaked across the sky.
Back across the river at the command post of Mamur Hasan, the local warlord, news of the bombing was beginning to filter in as night fell. The commander said: "What happened today was very good. Of course this alone is not enough but if it continues for a week we will launch a ground offensive."
Meanwhile, news was coming through that a new offensive against the strategic Taliban-held city of Mazar-i-Sharif had begun, led by the Uzbek warlord Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum. Nasir, a Northern Alliance soldier, was listening in on the Taliban field radio wavelength. He said: "They requested additional soldiers to come and dig out the dead who are buried under the earth in Chaghatai. There were 25 men in that bunker alone. It sounds like the bombing killed them all."
It was a chilling reminder of the nature of war: as one side celebrates, the other mourns.
-- Swissrose (email@example.com), October 31, 2001