WASHINGTON – The Taliban might be planning to poison food aid being distributed in Afghanistan and blame it on the United States, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
"We are going to make sure that that is as widely known as fast and as far as we can," said Rear Adm. John D. Stufflebeem.
He said the Pentagon has obtained information of such a possible plot and chose "to release that information now before it becomes a fact."
Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Stufflebeem gave no details on the kind of information he was referring to.
The United States has dropped more than 700,000 packets of food meant for the hungry and displaced population since it launched its bombing campaign over Afghanistan Oct. 7. Other relief organizations also are distributing food in the country and the Taliban militia that controls most of the country has confiscated some of those foodstuffs.
"If the food comes from America it will not be tainted," Stufflebeem said he wanted to tell people. "But if it comes from Taliban control, they must be careful."
He also said troops Wednesday retrieved the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed Friday in Pakistan while supporting a covert raid into Afghanistan. A recovery crew had tried to retrieve it Saturday but aborted the mission when it came under small-arms fire from unknown gunmen.
Meanwhile, Pakistani officials said they think Taliban infiltrators were responsible for the weekend shooting attack on U.S. helicopters in Pakistan.
Stufflebeem also called the Taliban and Al Qaeda network fighters "tough warriors" and said he has been "surprised at how doggedly they're hanging on to power."
He repeated Bush administration cautions that "this is going to be a long, long campaign" against terrorism.
Earlier Wednesday, President Bush told employees of a Maryland business that America was winning the war on both fronts — in Afghanistan and in the efforts to protect America's shores.
"We're patient. We're firm. We have got a strategy that is going to work. And make no mistake about it, justice will be done," the president said.
And Secretary of State Colin Powell said he hoped the anti-terrorism war can be concluded quickly but the administration is prepared to keep up the fight during the Muslim holy period of Ramadan if necessary.
Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Bush administration is sensitive to the onset of the holy days in mid-November and the beginning of winter.
"The important point to remember," he said at a State Department news conference, "is we have military objectives to accomplish and I would like to see all of those objectives accomplished in the next few days as we approach this period of Ramadan and winter."
And yet, Powell said, "We will just have to make an assessment at that time on where we are. If it is necessary to continue military action I am sure that's a judgment the president will support."
Despite the administration's sensitivity to Ramadan, Powell said, "We can't let that be the sole determinant whether or not to continue our military effort."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is vowing to flush out any Afghan fighters who hide in residential areas to escape aerial attacks even as it acknowledges a few of its bombs accidentally struck civilian sites.