KABUL, Afghanistan – Shrugging off the deployment of U.S. special forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime challenged Washington on Friday to send a full force of troops. "Then it can be a fight between our soldiers and theirs," a Taliban official declared.
After a pre-dawn pounding, U.S. jets eased their round-the-clock bombardment of Kabul on Friday, Islam's holy day. Frightened families seized the opportunity to flee homes near likely targets.
In Washington, a U.S. government official confirmed that a small number of U.S. special forces troops were now operating in Taliban territory in southern Afghanistan, aiding covert efforts to undermine the hard-line Islamic regime. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicated U.S.-led military action could intensify in coming days.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had served notice earlier that ground forces would be joining the search for Usama bin Laden and key targets in his Al Qaeda terror network and in the Taliban.
Warplanes "can't crawl around on the ground and find people," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference Thursday. "You have to go and find them."
Special forces units typically are used for small-scale and covert operations, including search-and-destroy missions. Small teams of U.S. and British troops are believed to have entered Afghanistan for reconnaissance before the air campaign began Oct. 7.
In neighboring Pakistan, Taliban embassy officials said Afghanistan's Islamic leaders had no information that American ground troops had arrived -- but challenged them to come ahead.
"Fifteen or 20 troops will be able to do nothing. If they want to send in soldiers, they should send in 100,000," embassy spokesman Sohail Shaheen said in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. "Then it can be a fight between our soldiers and theirs."
"Now it is just a war against civilians," Shaheen said. "If they enter, then it would be an actual war."
President Bush launched the U.S.-led airstrikes after the Taliban repeatedly refused to surrender bin Laden, chief suspect in last month's terror attacks in the United States.
Bush has also demanded the Taliban free international relief workers, including two Americans, imprisoned since August. The Taliban have been trying the eight workers on charges of spreading Christianity in the Muslim nation. The workers' lawyer, Atif Ali Khan of Pakistan, said Friday he expects a verdict in the case next week.
U.S. pilots took the campaign into its 13th day Friday, returning overnight for new strikes on Kabul. Other raids hit the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban's headquarters, and around the eastern city of Jalalabad, where Al Qaeda has bases.
Daylight brought a break in the bombing in Kabul. Many families living near Taliban military sites grabbed belongings and children and abandoned their homes, seeking safety elsewhere.
Two more bombs hit at midday. But the overall pace Friday -- Islam's weekly day of worship, when faithful go to mosques to pray -- was far short of recent days' attacks. It was the second straight Friday that strikes were eased.
The U.S.-led assaults are targeting Taliban tank units, garrisons and other military installations scattered across the valley city of Kabul. Shaheen said the strikes have destroyed the country's main airports in Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad and damaged electrical installations.
U.S. bombs so far have missed bin Laden and the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan.
The envoy, Abdul Salam Zaeef, returned to Islamabad on Friday after what he said were meetings with both men in Afghanistan. He said he brought back a "plan to solve this problem," referring to the confrontation with the United States. He refused to discuss it, except to say it does not involve bin Laden's surrender.
Taliban sources confirmed a first fatality among bin Laden's close associates in Afghanistan, according to the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press.
Abu Baseer al-Masri, a veteran Al Qaeda member, was fatally wounded Oct. 11 when a grenade accidentally exploded in his hands, according to the report. He died in a Jalalabad hospital two days later.
The Taliban denied the account of the death given by a London-based Islamic group, the Islamic Observation Center, which said al-Masri was killed when someone tossed away a U.S. cluster bomblet that had landed, unexploded.
Despite Friday's slackening in the air campaign, Afghan opposition forces were reported to be pressing their ground offensive to take the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
Afghanistan's northern-based opposition is a loose coalition of forces, made up mainly of minority ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks. Control of Mazar-e-Sharif would let them consolidate their supply lines from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, assuring the flow of arms from those two countries.