RECKONING

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP)- Missiles and warplanes streaked through the Afghan night and rocked at least three cities in a U.S.-British attack on Osama bin Laden and his Taliban backers Sunday. Bin Laden and the Taliban’s leader both survived, Taliban officials said.

The strike began after nightfall Sunday in Kabul with five blasts followed by the sounds of anti-aircraft fire. Electricity was shut off throughout the city for more than two hours afterward. A Taliban official said civilians were killed in the barrage but did not say how many or where.

The attack also targeted the heart of the Taliban movement, hitting its military headquarters and the home of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in the southern city of Kandahar, according to Afghan sources reached by telephone from Islamabad, Pakistan.

The sources said the first wave struck the Kandahar airport, destroying radar facilities and the control tower. The strike also targeted hundreds of housing units built for members of bin Laden’s al-Qaida terror movement.

The second wave, which appeared to be more precisely targeted, struck the Taliban national headquarters in downtown Kandahar, the sources said. They said smoke was seen billowing from Mullah Omar’s high-walled compound about nine miles outside the city.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

In Jalalabad, other 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.

The next morning, the Taliban’s ambassador to neighboring Pakistan said civilians had been killed in the strikes. But the envoy, Abdul Salam Zaeef, would not say how many or where they occurred

“There were casualties,” Zaeef told The Associated Press on Monday. “Civilians died. It was a very huge attack.”

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. George Rhynedance said it was “too early to tell” if there were any civilian casualties. “We’re assessing the success of our missions right now,” he said.

Zaeef said earlier that bin Laden, the main suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, and Mullah Omar had survived. “By the grace of God, Mullah Omar and bin Laden are alive,” he said Sunday, without saying whether either leader was near the scene of the attacks.

In Washington, Pentagon officials said the United States and Britain launched 50 cruise missiles against targets inside Afghanistan in an attack that also involved the most sophisticated U.S. warplanes. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said an initial goal of the strikes was to render air defenses ineffective and to wipe out the Taliban’s military aircraft.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said 15 bombers and 25 strike aircraft, both sea and land-based, launched the missiles at 12:30 p.m. EDT, or 9 p.m. Kabul time. Myers said the attacks included B-1, B-2 and B-52 bombers as well as ships and submarines in the region.

President Bush gave a live televised address after the strikes began, saying U.S. and British forces were taking “targeted actions” against Taliban military capabilities and al-Qaida.

In the days following the strikes at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the president had issued a series of demands for the Taliban to hand over bin Laden, a Saudi exile. The Taliban offered to negotiate but refused a handover.

“Now the Taliban will pay a price,” Bush vowed.

A senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said targets included air defenses, military communications sites and terrorist training camps inside Afghanistan.

Power went off throughout Kabul almost immediately after the first of the thunderous blasts, which appeared to have been in the southwest of the city. The southwestern part of Kabul includes the Darulaman Palace, an ancient royal residence, and the Balahisar Fort, an old Mogul style installation. Anti-aircraft fire rattled when planes could be heard overhead. Early Monday, a lone aircraft dropped one bomb in the northern edge of Kabul, shaking the area with a powerful explosion.

Electricity was restored in Kabul more than two hours after the attack, but later went out again. It was unclear whether the blast had damaged transmission facilities or the Taliban were shutting off electricity to darken the city from attackers. There was no sign of panic among Kabul’s 1 million people, long inured to war after more than two decades of relentless fighting that has destroyed most of the city.

The private, Islamabad-based Afghan Islamic Press agency quoted the Taliban as saying American planes had bombed areas near the Kabul airport in the northern part of the city. The agency said there were no details of casualties and no reports of damage to the city itself. It added, however, that “huge smoke is rising near Kabul airport.”

In a statement carried by Afghan Islamic Press, an unidentified Taliban spokesman in Kandahar said all provincial airports in the country appeared to have been targeted “but we have not suffered any major damage.”

In an interview with a Turkish radio station, Gen. Rashid Dostum, of the coalition of opposition forces fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, said: “Taliban’s planes are burning.”

Dostum, speaking from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan, said the strikes also hit the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, which his troops have been fighting to retake from the Taliban.

In an offensive coordinated with U.S.-British airstrikes, the opposition northern alliance launched a rocket launcher attack on Taliban forces controlling the mountains north of Kabul. The Taliban returned fire using Soviet-made BM-21 rockets, some exploding 200 yards from where foreign journalists were observing the attack.

The northern alliance, which has been battling the Taliban for years, hopes the U.S. strikes will help in its struggle against the Islamic militia. Russia and Iran are helping to supply the northern alliance with weapons.

Afghanistan’s former King Mohammad Zaher Shah, who has lived in exile in Italy since his ouster in 1973, said in a statement Sunday that he recognized the “legitimate right” of the United States to launch the attacks.

“Unfortunately, the unpatriotic position of the Taliban and their sponsors has again inflicted pain, sorrow and destruction on the people of Afghanistan,” said Zaher Shah, who has been in contact with opposition forces on forming a new government if the Taliban are ousted.

In the Taliban’s first official reaction, ambassador Zaeef called the assault a terrorist attack and vowed that America “will never achieve its goal.” Later, Taliban Deputy Defense Minister Mullah Noor Ali said “the people of Afghanistan will resist. They will never accept the rule of infidels.”