Air Attacks Continue, Five Civilians Dead

KABUL, Afghanistan?American jets bombarded the center of the Afghan capital Thursday, and residents said a strike that hit homes killed at least five civilians?including a 16-year old girl and four in one family who lived near a Taliban tank unit.

In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban headquarters of Kandahar came under attack dozens of times, residents said. And planes struck a small town outside the southern city where the Taliban?s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had preached two days before.

With the air campaign in its 12th day came the first report that the bombing had killed a veteran figure in Osama bin Laden?s al Qaeda network. A London-based Islamic group said an Egyptian who was a veteran al Qaeda fighter died in a U.S. strike Sunday.

Alongside missiles and bombs, U.S. forces have been bombarding Afghanistan with radio broadcasts and leaflets urging surrender. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said at the Pentagon that those operations had borne some fruit, with some members of the Taliban defecting to the opposition.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested coalition ground operations may be on the horizon, and that the international effort was entering ?the most testing time.?

Speaking at his Downing Street office, Blair offer no timeframe or details, but he said, ?I don?t think we have ever contemplated this being done by air power alone.?

?I believe that the next few weeks will be the most testing time, but we are on track to achieve the goals we set out,? Blair said. ?There will be further action that we are considering taking, again targeted.?

Strikes on the capital Thursday appeared targeted against a Taliban tank unit and other military installations near the city center Thursday. However, one bomb devastated two homes in the Quilazaman Khan neighborhood, killing the four family members, according to neighbors.

A 16-year-old girl was also killed when another bomb exploded in the Microryan housing complex about a half mile away, residents said. Late Thursday, two strong detonations shook buildings in the once-fashionable Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood.

There was no immediate confirmation of the number of deaths. The United States has expressed regret for civilian casualties, insisting that it only targets bin Laden and his Taliban allies.

Taliban officials said at least 12 people were killed and 20 injured during the day of strikes on Kandahar?a claim that could not be independently verified. Planes also targeted Arghandab, a small town about 12 miles to the northwest, witnesses said. Taliban sources claimed there were no military targets there, but Mullah Omar preached there Tuesday.

President Bush ordered the attacks beginning Oct. 7 to uproot bin Laden and his al Qaeda network?blamed for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States?and punish Afghanistan?s ruling Taliban, who have harbored him.

The death of the veteran al Qaeda fighter, known as Abu Baseer al-Masri, was reported by the London-based Islamic Observation Center. The report said a U.S. strike near Jalalabad on Sunday killed al Masri and injured two of his colleagues.

Afghan sources in Islamabad, Pakistan, said al-Masri had been in Afghanistan for about 10 years and was close to bin Laden?s chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri.

Still, both bin Laden and Mullah Omar were alive, said the Taliban ambassador to neighboring Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef. He said he had met recently with bin Laden and ?He is fine.?