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U.S. Special Operations troops in commando raid

2 U.S. soldiers killed in Pakistan crash

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Special Operations troops launched and completed an overnight raid into Afghanistan, U.S. officials told CNN Friday night.

Two soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Pakistan while backing up the operation, the Pentagon announced. The crash occurred as they prepared for possible search-and-rescue operations, officials said.

President Bush was informed about the deaths prior to leaving his hotel in Shanghai, China, for a day of meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Speaking to reporters before the meetings, he said his heart goes out to the families and friends of the dead soldiers, and that it was difficult to express his gratitude for their service.

"I want to assure the loved ones that the soldiers died in a cause that is just and right, and that we will prevail," Bush said. "These soldiers will not have died in vain."

Meanwhile, more than 100 troops, including U.S. Army Rangers, flew in helicopters to their unspecified target near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar and stayed there for several hours, the officials said. There was no word on what the commandos' mission was or whether it was achieved, but apparently it involved a Taliban leadership target.

All of the helicopters are out of Afghan airspace now, officials said late Friday night, Washington time. The commandos' helicopters had been launched from the USS Kitty Hawk in the Arabian Sea, officials said. The commandos' mission was backed by fixed-wing aircraft, including AC-130 gunships.

Earlier in the day, a U.S. official in Washington told CNN that elite American troops were on the ground in Afghanistan in a "liaison" mission with the opposition Northern Alliance.

Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, refused earlier Friday to confirm or deny reports that ground operations were under way. But Rumsfeld said "there are certain things taking place from the air and things from time to time being coordinated with the ground."

Speaking to reporters en route to a military base in Missouri, he also defined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan with some of the starkest terms to date, saying it "will be over when the Taliban and al Qaeda are gone."

No stand-down on airstrikes

Friday night, CNN sources in Kandahar reported heavy bombing, with a number of explosions. They also reported seeing U.S. AC-130 gunships over the Taliban stronghold.

Attacks Thursday night in Kandahar had continued into morning on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer. But Afghan employees of CNN said from Kandahar that the bombing appeared to stop around 10 a.m. Friday, resuming at 11 p.m.

However, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said there was no stand-down in the air campaign. Last Friday, U.S. forces had refrained from planned attacks.

Several government offices and buildings in a residential neighborhood were damaged in the pre-dawn attack Friday, according to CNN sources.

The Arabic language TV satellite network Al Jazeera reported that two bombs were dropped in the Kabul area Friday morning, one in the city itself and another southwest of the capital. A television tower was hit in Jalalabad, and an elite Taliban military unit may also have been one of Friday's targets.

On the ground, the Northern Alliance and the Taliban continued to battle over the strategically important city of Mazar-e Sharif in the northwest, which alliance troops are trying to wrest from Taliban hands.

Rumsfeld said the Taliban are putting up stiff resistance and that "it would be unwise to think the outcome of the battle could be determined." He confirmed that the United States had given the Northern Alliance food, ammunition, supplies and even money.

International aid workers who traveled out of Kabul told CNN Friday that morale among the Taliban appears to still be good, despite nearly two weeks of U.S. air attacks. However, they disputed Taliban claims of civilian casualties in the capital.

Taliban officials have claimed that 70 civilians in Kabul have died in the airstrikes, with more than 500 killed or injured across the country. But the aid workers put the number of deaths in Kabul at 10.

Taliban repeats: No surrender of bin Laden

In Islamabad on Friday, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, reiterated that the Taliban had not changed its position on handing over suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, as the United States has demanded.

He also discounted reports of splits within the Taliban between moderates and hard-liners, saying they remain united. He also denied reports of Taliban defections.

"This was not true, and this was completely [a] lie, and this is a part of propaganda against [the] Islamic nation of Afghanistan," Zaeef said.

Earlier Friday, Zaeef traveled to Kandahar to meet with Taliban leaders. He later said he would not discuss the "contents" of those discussions with media, but he indicated he would discuss a possible plan to end the fighting with Pakistani authorities.

But in Washington, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said Zaeef's trip to Kandahar was evidence that U.S. airstrikes have disrupted the Taliban's ability to communicate, forcing him to visit his leadership face-to-face.

Civilian casualty numbers disputed

The Arabic-language TV station Al Jazeera reported Friday evening that intense bombing runs had begun anew.

There were attacks at Kandahar and Kabul overnight into Friday morning as well, the network reported. Two bombs were dropped Friday morning, one in Kabul and one southwest of the capital, Al Jazeera said.

An elite Taliban military unit may have been one of the targets Friday. In Jalalabad, a television tower was hit, according to reports.

Aid workers who traveled to Pakistan said there had been 10 civilian casualties in the capital city since the bombing campaign began October 7. The Taliban said 70 people had been killed in attacks in Kabul during the bombing campaign.

Others disputed a report that an aide to bin Laden was killed in an allied bombing strike. According to the Afghan Islamic Press, Abu Baseer al-Masri was killed not in an airstrike but when a grenade went off in his hands. He died in a Jalalabad hospital last Saturday, according to the account.

Pakistan has turned over the use of its Dalbandin Air Base in the western part of the country to "coalition forces," high-ranking officials in the Balochistan Province said Friday. Located in the desert west of Quetta, it could be strategically important if joint U.S. and British forces needed a staging ground close to Kandahar. The Taliban stronghold is about 125 miles northwest of Quetta.

U.S. military aircraft have been witnessed flying in and out of at least two other Pakistani air bases, including one near the southern city of Jacobabad, and Pakistani troops were seen securing the area around the base, sources told CNN.

Pakistani government officials have neither confirmed nor denied that U.S. troops and planes are using any bases.


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