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TALIBAN WEARING DOWN, BUT BIN LADEN IS NO CLOSER, RUMSFELD ADMITS

U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan have significantly reduced the Taliban's ability to defend itself against Afghan opposition forces but have moved the United States only marginally closer to finding Osama bin Laden, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.

"The Taliban's ability to effectively oppose the forces on the ground that are in opposition to the Taliban is degraded and diminished," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld's relatively upbeat assessment appeared to contrast with the Pentagon's appraisal only a day before, when Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem, a senior official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the United States faces a tough struggle against a surprisingly resilient Taliban foe.

But with the military campaign still relatively young, both assessments may be true, defense analyst Harlan Ullman said. Progress against Taliban defenses may not lead immediately to the overthrow of the extremist Islamic regime, he said.

And progress against Taliban troops does not necessarily mean progress in finding leaders of bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network, as Rumsfeld stressed. He said the lack of good intelligence on the terrorist leader's whereabouts has been a persistent problem.

"There isn't any progress. You either have him or you don't," he said.

Rumsfeld said the U.S. air attack has succeeded in hitting many of the Taliban's surface-to-air missiles and aircraft, including transport helicopters and Soviet jets.

He acknowledged that the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance has not made significant progress in efforts to capture Kabul, the Afghan capital, or the key northern crossroads town of Mazar-e-Sharif, despite U.S.-led airstrikes in these areas.

But the anti-Taliban ground forces "are better off today than they were before (the bombing began Oct. 7), and they are in a position to be more successful," he said.

Haron Amin, spokesman for the Northern Alliance in Washington, criticized the United States for a military strategy he said has included only limited assistance to the opposition.

U.S. military strategists "have made some choices (in their targeting), and those choices we think have in a sense prolonged the campaign," Amin said.

In Afghanistan, U.S. jets struck Kabul today on the Muslim Sabbath, rocking the capital city with huge explosions and blasting a Red Cross compound for a second time this month.

After another night of sometimes intense bombing, three huge detonations shook Kabul at midday, raising clouds of smoke from the direction of the airport and the Khair Khana district to the north.

One of the blasts struck a compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to security guard Abdul Shakour. He said warehouses used to store humanitarian supplies were damaged and stocks of rice, beans, blankets and oil were on fire. The compound was hit during an attack Oct. 16.

During late-night bombing Thursday, three children were killed -- two from one family living in the northwest area of Kabul and a third from the east part of town, hospital officials said.

The United States has repeatedly said it is not targeting civilians and regrets any loss of life.

Taliban forces, meanwhile, told the Afghan Islamic Press agency that they had captured and executed a noted opposition figure reportedly on a peace mission on behalf of the U.S.-backed former king.

The Taliban's Bakhtar news agency said Abdul Haq was captured after villagers in Logar province, 30 miles east of Kabul, tipped off Taliban intelligence.

A firefight ensued between Haq's party and the Taliban in which four Taliban soldiers and three civilians were injured, the agency said.

Haq was captured but was later executed by the Taliban, which accused him of spying for the United States and Britain.

However, an aide to former King Mohammad Zaher Shah said Haq, a guerrilla leader in the war against the Soviets, slipped into Afghanistan with peace proposals on behalf of the one-time monarch.

The United States and other Western countries have urged the former king to play a major role in forming a government to replace the Taliban.

Haq's family confirmed the report during a news conference in Peshawar, Pakistan. "The mission was not against the Taliban," Haq's brother Hajid bin Mohammad said. "The mission was for Afghanistan."

Meanwhile, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar appealed today to Muslims for three days of demonstrations supporting the Taliban cause, calling that cause holy war, not terrorism.

"The Muslims of the world should see these events correctly," Omar said in a recorded statement released in the Taliban's southern headquarters city of Kandahar, the Afghan Islamic Press said.

"America, with its powerful media, is giving the impression that holy war is terrorism, and the media is declaring freedom fighters terrorists," he added.

The true terrorists, Omar insisted, are the countries that he called Islam's enemies -- the United States, India, Russia and Israel.

He asked for 72 hours of protests by "those Muslims who feel that holy war is part of Islam . . . to support the Taliban point of view."

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