Archive for Saturday, September 22, 2001

Spy plane shot down over Afghanistan

September 22, 2001

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— Taliban forces shot down an unmanned spy plane in northern Afghanistan on Saturday, a Taliban official said.

Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban's ambassador to Pakistan, said the aircraft was shot down over Tashgurgan Pass in Afghanistan's northern Samangan province by Taliban soldiers armed with Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons.

"We are still trying to ascertain what country this plane belongs to," Zaeef said in an interview.

The Afghan Islamic Press, an Afghan news agency based in Islamabad, first reported that it was a U.S. spy plane, then said it wasn't sure which country it was from.

In Washington, a U.S. official declined to comment. "As the secretary of defense has said, we will not discuss any operational issues," said Lt. Col. Mike Milord, a Pentagon spokesman. "We will not respond to each and every statement of the Taliban."

The aircraft could have entered northern Afghanistan from Russia or one of the nearby Central Asian states, such as bordering Uzbekistan.

The reported downing of the spy plane came as U.S. forces prepared for a possible attack on Afghanistan targeting Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington.

For years, the Taliban have given sanctuary to the millionaire Saudi refugee, who is accused of masterminding terrorist attacks around the world, using camps to train some of the assailants.

After failing to persuade the Taliban to comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution to hand over bin Laden, the United Arab Emirates announced Saturday it would cut ties with the hard-line Islamic militia.

"The United Arab Emirates does not believe that it is possible to continue to maintain diplomatic relations with a government that refuses to respond to the clear will of the international community," an unidentified Foreign Ministry official told the news agency.

That left only two countries Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that continue to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Other countries recognize the government-in-exile of President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Pakistan's ties with the Taliban were recently strained by Islamabad's offer to help U.S. forces in an attack on Afghanistan by providing them access to its air space and land.

In another development, heavy fighting was reported Saturday between the Taliban militia and opposition forces in northern Afghanistan.

Taliban's official Bakhtar news agency in Kabul said their forces shot down an opposition helicopter in the same province where the spy plane reportedly was.

The helicopter was hit in the Dar-e-suf district during a battle being waged there. It was apparently coming from the town of Andarab in neighboring Baghlan province, the official said.

The Taliban control 95 percent of Afghanistan and have been fighting an opposition force based mostly in the north for the last five years. Dar-e-suf has been the scene of the heaviest fighting between the Taliban and the opposition this year.

Both sides are equipped with antiquated Russian fighter jets and helicopter gunships, most of them leftovers from the 10-year Soviet occupation that ended in 1989 with the Soviets' withdrawal.

In recent years, the opposition has received new helicopters from Russia.

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