WASHINGTON—American and British forces launched air and missile assaults against Afghanistan on Sunday, the first in a series of long-anticipated strikes against the terrorists believed to be responsible for last month's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
President Bush announced the air and naval offensive in a midday televised address to the nation, saying the ruling Taliban government in Afghanistan "will pay a price" for providing sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and the leaders of his Al Qaeda terrorist network.
In a speech to his nation, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said of the Taliban: "They were given the choice of siding with justice or siding with terror and they chose to side with terror."
Cruise missiles, launched from British and U.S. vessels, and missiles and bombs from long-range bombers and carrier-based fighters, struck the Afghan capital, Kabul, as well as the cities of Kandahar and Jalalabad. More strikes followed into the night. Kabul was plunged into darkness while residents in Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual stronghold, were reported to be in a panic.
The Pentagon said the assault began at 8:57 p.m. in Afghanistan. At least seven areas were targeted, officials said. At the same time, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance attacked the Taliban militia north of Kabul.
As the attacks began, the State Department warned of possible retaliatory action against U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world. In the wake of planned violent protests in Indonesia and Pakistan, U.S. diplomatic installations braced for potential assaults in those countries and elsewhere.
At home, authorities tightened security at airports, seaports, utilities and government facilities across the country. In Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney moved to an undisclosed location as a precaution, the White House said.
"American people need to be alert," said Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. "Threats do remain, and government and law-enforcement agencies are taking all necessary precautions, but threats do remain. This is war."
The strikes came 26 days after the suicide hijacking attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and two weeks after Bush issued an ultimatum to the Taliban to hand over bin Laden or share his fate.
Emphasizing the expected long-term nature of the military offensive known as Operation Enduring Freedom, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said there were no immediate indications of the attacks' success or of casualties.
"It is not yet over," Rumsfeld said, adding that the U.S.- and British-led campaign would be "sustained" and "continuous ... until we are convinced that those terrorist networks are destroyed."
The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan said bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's supreme leader, survived the first wave of attacks. "By the grace of God, Mullah Omar and bin Laden are alive," Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Rumsfeld said bin Laden was not specifically targeted in Sunday's attacks, but broader terrorist networks were, as well as anti-aircraft sites, military headquarters, airfields and Taliban tanks.
The aim, officials said, was to wipe out Taliban anti-aircraft weapons and aircraft and set up the conditions needed for a longer campaign to unearth the terrorists. That action is expected to include covert or special forces operations.
Food packets also dropped
As U.S. and British forces bombed Afghan targets, two C-17 cargo planes dropped 37,500 food packets to starving Afghans to underscore a message that the strikes are meant to harm terrorists, not ordinary civilians. The military also dropped leaflets and made radio broadcasts into Afghanistan to explain the U.S. action.
The only surprise from the coordinated assaults was the timing. In the nearly four weeks since the terrorist attacks killed more than 5,000 people, the White House repeatedly demanded that the Taliban turn over bin Laden and dismantle the terrorist bases.
Bush and other administration officials consistently rejected attempts by the Taliban to negotiate a resolution and, in recent days, signaled military action was imminent. The strikes came four days after Blair released a dossier outlining the evidence tying bin Laden and Al Qaeda to the terrorist attacks in the United States.