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Hundreds of thousands of lives at risk from terror, says Rumsfeld

28 April 2002

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, gave an indication yesterday that the "war on terrorism" was likely to be extended to Iraq, and that terrorists were being supplied with weapons of mass destruction.

As fighting between rival warlords killed at least 25 people in eastern Afghanistan, a belligerent Mr Rumsfeld told American, British and allied troops that their campaign in the country was a "proving ground" for wars to come against rogue states, and insisted that "hundreds of thousands of lives" were at risk from chemical and nuclear arsenals.

Addressing heavily armed soldiers at Bagram airbase, the military headquarters for the Afghan war, Mr Rumsfeld did not mention the Taliban or al-Qa'ida once, concentrating, instead, on the conflict moving on to other countries.

But there were grim reminders that the Afghan war was far from over. Overnight, rockets fell near the base of the multinational peacekeeping force at Kabul airport.US forces also were reported to have recovered several hundred rockets south of the capital. A Mig 21 plane, one of only two owned by the Afghan Air Force, crashed east of the city, killing the pilot. Fighting erupted in the Gardez area, east Afghanistan, between rival warlords. The provincial governor said that at least 500 rockets had been fired on the town, killing 25 people.

The Chinese-made rocket used to hit Kabul airport at 10.47pm Friday marked the second missile attack in 24 hours on allied troops; on Thursday evening missiles struck a US base near Khost. There were no casualties from either of the incidents.

On his way to Bagram, Mr Rumsfeld admitted the Taliban and al-Qa'ida were not finished and were thought to be planning a "spring offensive". At the airbase he told the troops that they "stood on the frontline between freedom and fear... against an evil that cannot be appeased... and certainly must be defeated".

He said: "When this war is over, you'll be able to say 'I fought with the coalition in Afghanistan against terror', and you will be remembered for it." He stressed that Afghanistan was a "proving ground", given "the existence of weapons of mass destruction" and "their development in countries that are on the terrorist list". He did not mention other countries, but US defence officials have acknowledged that the Defence Secretary has had Saddam Hussein's Iraq regime in mind.

"It is our job to see we do the task... before terrorists get their hands on the weapons of mass destruction," he said. "We are talking probably about hundreds of thousands of people being killed."

In Kabul, Mr Rumsfeld met the Afghan interim leader, Hamid Karzai. The Defence Secretary then flew on to Herat, west Afghanistan, where he met the governor, Ismail Khan. Americans have accused Iran, another country in George Bush's "axis of evil", of infiltration in western Afghanistan and Commander Khan of colluding with Teheran. Mr Rumsfeld will press Cmdr Khan to loosen his Iranian links and accept the International Security Assistance Force into the region.

Mr Rumsfeld will go to Pakistan to meet its leader, General Pervez Musharraf, who is holding a referendum on Tuesday to try to extend his power. The general came into the war as a reluctant US ally, and has sidelined senior figures in the military and intelligence services who buttressed the Taliban regime. The opposition has made his support for the West's war a focal point of their campaign. Mr Rumsfeld will tell him that US forces want to continue operations across the border.

But the volatility of the situation has been underlined by widespread protest from tribal leaders and Muslim clerics following the storming by US forces of a religious school.

A cleric, Maulvi Abdul Hafeez, said: "We condemn the cooperation between Musharraf and the Americans to enter a religious school. We will not let Americans into this area."

Kim Sengupta, Bagram, Afghanistan
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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