KABUL, Afghanistan – The Pentagon on Wednesday assessed the damage from U.S. airstrikes on a compound near Kandahar that may have been used by top Taliban or Al Qaeda leaders.
The Pentagon ordered the airstrikes on the Afghan compound southeast of Kandahar Tuesday after receiving information it was being used by senior leaders of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and another alleged terrorist group, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said.
U.S. officials told Fox News that it was believed Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar may have been in the compound sometime before the bombing.
But a senior Taliban representative on Wednesday denied speculation that Omar had been injured or killed in the U.S. airstrikes. Former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said Omar remained unharmed, the Afghan Islamic Press, a Pakistan-based news agency, reported Wednesday.
"Mullah Mohammed Omar ... is safe and sound. He hasn't been hurt, nor any other Taliban leader," Zaeef said. He said U.S. planes had hit the house of a local Taliban leader in Kandahar's Dand area. However, it was not an Al Qaeda or Taliban base, he said. He gave no details of casualties and his claim could not be independently verified.
F-16 jets and B-1B bombers dropped precision-guided weapons Tuesday on their targets, military officials said. Information about the targets came into U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., while Rumsfeld was visiting Tuesday afternoon.
Pentagon officials didn't say who may have been in the compound and possibly killed, though Rumsfeld told reporters "It clearly was a leadership area" and he said those targeted were "non-trivial."
"Whoever was there is going to wish they weren't," he said.
Rumsfeld said the compound in southern Afghanistan was thought to hold leaders of the ruling Taliban militia, Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization and Wafa, a Saudi humanitarian aid organization that was among several groups named by the United States as alleged money conduits for bin Laden and his network.
Several hundred members of Al Qaeda have been killed during the seven weeks of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Seven of those killed are considered Al Qaeda leaders, said another official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. They include Mohammed Atef, one of bin Laden's top two deputies, killed in a U.S. strike around Nov. 14. Other leaders believed killed include Mohammed Salah and Tariq Anwar, two high-ranking members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, who are part of Al Qaeda, the officials said.
Suspicious Al Qaeda Weapons Sites Searched
Rumsfeld spent several hours Tuesday at Central Command, where he met with Gen. Tommy Franks, who is running the war.
Franks said U.S. forces in Afghanistan are searching more than 40 laboratories and other facilities suspected of conducting secret work on chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. So far, none has yielded clear evidence of such work, he said.
He said results from initial tests of samples taken from some sites were not yet available. The more than 40 sites are in parts of Afghanistan no longer under control of the Taliban.
"What we have found in a variety of laboratories is laboratory sorts of paraphernalia," he said. "We have found a variety of chemical compositions and these sorts of things." He said it was possible these items were for legitimate purposes such as making fertilizer or other commercial products.
"We have acquired a great deal of samples, and now what we need to do is be very thorough in their analysis," Franks said.
Franks said he was considering setting up a headquarters closer to Afghanistan, possibly in Qatar, a Persian Gulf emirate.
In response to a reporter's question whether U.S. intelligence had narrowed bin Laden's likely hiding places, Franks said there are now two main areas of focus. One is Kandahar, the last stronghold of the Taliban militia that has harbored bin Laden, the No. 1 suspect in the Sept. 11 terror bombings; the other is an area between the eastern city of Jalalabad and a mountain base called Tora Bora, Franks said.
"Those are the places right now that we have been led to, to pay very close attention to," Franks said.
Bush administration officials have been careful to say they don't know where bin Laden may be hiding.
Immediately after Franks pointed to Kandahar and Tora Bora, Rumsfeld interjected, "They are not the only places we are paying attention to." He did not elaborate.
The Associated Press contributed to this report