WASHINGTON - U.S. warplanes over Afghanistan are pounding Taliban front-line troops with increasing frequency and to devastating effect, as forces of the fundamentalist Islamic regime move into the open to escape strikes on their hideaways, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Sunday.
At the same time, thousands of armed volunteers from Pakistan awaited the signal from their religious leader to cross the border into Afghanistan and join the Taliban in the fight.
Rumsfeld's televised comments were the clearest indication so far that the bombing campaign, directed initially at mostly unoccupied military targets, is now aimed primarily at hitting soldiers on the move.
But even as Rumsfeld spoke, reports emerged that U.S. airstrikes had accidentally killed more than a dozen civilians in the Afghan capital, Kabul, one day after other strikes went astray and landed in two hamlets north of the city.
Rumsfeld defended the casualty figures as minimal and said some of the victims might have been killed by Taliban or opposition Northern Alliance fire.
"Are people going to be killed in a war? You bet," he said. "And there is plenty of ordinance flying around."
Better intelligence from inside Afghanistan is helping the United States divine precisely where to direct its bombs to greatest effect, Rumsfeld said on the ABC news show "This Week."
"The fact that for a period we did not have good targets has now shifted, because we are getting much better information from the ground in terms of targets," he said.
On Sunday, a delegation of 10 men from the forces massed at Lagharay, Pakistan, six miles from the Afghan border in the Bajaur tribal area, traveled into neighboring Konar province to meet with Taliban Gov. Maulvi Abdul Rauf.
Called to jihad, or holy war, by Sofi Mohammadi, leader of the Pakistan-based Movement for the Enforcement of the Laws of Mohammed, the volunteers streamed to the North-West Frontier province border area in several hundred trucks and civilian vehicles festooned with black flags.
On Saturday, a Pakistani government official estimated the number of fighters in this ragtag army at 8,000. Other estimates put its size at anywhere from 3,500 to 20,000; the latter figure came from organizers. Volunteer commanders said their objective was to join Taliban forces to defend the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif against the advancing Northern Alliance.
Mohammadi, a firebrand cleric whose fundamentalist interpretation of Islam matches or exceeds that of the Taliban, left the border area Sunday to convince followers to give up their blockade of the major Karakoram Highway, which snakes through Pakistan's mountainous north to the Chinese border. As part of their opposition to the Pakistani government's support of the anti-terrorist action, Mohammadi supporters had rolled boulders onto the highway in several locations and damaged bridges and culverts along the route.
According to a senior government official, Pakistani border patrol and army troops were under orders to avoid a confrontation with the volunteers - armed with an array of weaponry ranging from rocket launchers to muskets. Some volunteers arrived at the border carrying swords.
Already under heavy criticism from fundamentalist religious groups for backing the U.S. military campaign, the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf faces the difficult decision of using force to stop the volunteers or allowing them to come under fire from Northern Alliance ground troops inside Afghanistan and from U.S. air attacks.
In a 24-hour period that ended Sunday morning in Afghanistan, 70 U.S. warplanes hit 18 target areas across the north and northeast and around the western city of Herat, Defense officials said. Among the planes were 70 strike aircraft, 55 flying from three aircraft carriers in the region, fewer than eight long-range bombers and several land-based tactical jets, said Maj. Dan Stoneking, a Pentagon spokesman.
The U.S. bombs struck terrorist and Taliban command-and-control offices, Taliban military forces in garrisons and in the field, and a variety of other targets including Taliban tanks, Stoneking said.
U.S. C-17 cargo planes also dropped packages of food in Afghanistan, as they have every day for weeks, Stoneking said. The 34,000 packets of food dropped Sunday brought the total number of food rations dropped during the campaign to 925,000, Stoneking said.
Rumsfeld said that while the United States has been "very careful" about avoiding civilian casualties when possible, the Taliban is making it increasingly difficult not to hit civilians.
"They are systematically using mosques and schools and hospitals for command-and-control centers [and] for ammunition storage," Rumsfeld said. "They are placing artillery and tanks and armored vehicles in close proximity to hospitals and schools and residential areas."