- NATO, Afghan forces still battling Taliban attackers in Kabul
- Civilians flee pro-Gaddafi town ahead of assault
- Children may soon be spared U.S. airport patdowns
Posted: 13 Sep 2011 09:31 PM PDT
KABUL (Reuters) - NATO attack helicopters circled over an unfinished building in the centre of Kabul early on Wednesday in an operation to flush out Taliban fighters, more than 15 hours after the insurgents launched their biggest assault on the Afghan capital.
It was not known how many fighters were still holed up in the high-rise building near Kabul's diplomatic district from where they fired rockets at heavily-fortified U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters.
"Forces are still working on clearing operations," a spokesman of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force told Reuters, in what is turning out to be the longest sustained attack on Kabul since the U.S.-led invasion a decade ago.
A source in the office of the Kabul police said fighting began again early on Wednesday, but he had no more information.
A Taliban spokesman in a text message to Reuters said the group's fighters were well and fighting foreign forces.
A squad of about five insurgents took over the shopping centre under construction on the outskirts of Kabul's diplomatic district on Tuesday, armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, AK-47 assault rifles and suicide vests.
Afghanistan blog, click http://blogs.reuters.com/afghanistan/
Explosions were interspersed with gunfire all afternoon and several rockets landed in the upmarket Wazir Akbar Khan district, near the British and other embassies. One hit a school bus but it appeared to have been empty at the time.
The gun battle around Abdul Haq square went on into the early evening, with three attackers killed and one or two still at large nearly eight hours after the assault began, the Interior Ministry said.
The insurgents also launched attacks in three other areas of the capital, in the biggest challenge to foreign forces as they prepare to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces across the country by 2014.
A Senate panel on Tuesday approved a $1.6 billion cut in projected U.S. funding for Afghan security forces, part of a significant reduction in outlays for training and equipping Afghan army and police expected in the coming years.
At least 9 people were killed and 23 wounded in the four attacks, and the ability of the Taliban to penetrate Kabul's vaunted "Ring of Steel" was a clear show of strength ahead of the handover.
"The scale of today's attack is unprecedented," said Andrew Exum, fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
"There was almost certainly either a break-down in security among the Afghans with responsibility for Kabul or an intelligence failure."
The U.S. and British embassies and the NATO-led coalition said all their employees were safe.
Violence is at its worst since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, with high levels of foreign troop deaths and record civilian casualties.
The assault was the second big attack in the city in less than a month after suicide bombers targeted the British Council headquarters in mid-August, killing nine people.
In late June, insurgents launched an assault on a hotel in the capital frequented by Westerners, killing at least 10. But Tuesday's attack was even more ambitious.
(Addtiional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison and Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Ed Lane)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
Posted: 13 Sep 2011 08:30 PM PDT
NORTH GATE OF BANI WALID, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan fighters handed out free petrol to help hundreds of civilians flee a desert town held by Muammar Gaddafi's forces ahead of an onslaught aimed at capturing one of the ousted ruler's last bastions.
Complaining of hardship and intimidation, residents of Bani Walid headed to nearby towns or started the 180 km (112-mile) journey north towards Tripoli on Tuesday in cars packed with children and possessions.
Forces of the new ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) that overran Tripoli on Aug. 23 have met unexpectedly stout resistance in five days of fighting for Bani Walid, a sun-baked town set in rocky hills and valleys.
Along with Gaddafi's hometown Sirte on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha in the southern desert, Bani Walid is one of the last strongholds of old regime fighters.
Their dogged resistance has complicated NTC efforts to normalise life in the oil-rich North African state and the United Nations has voiced fears about the plight of civilians marooned inside besieged pro-Gaddafi towns, particularly Sirte.
Gaddafi's whereabouts are unknown. NTC officials have said he could be hiding in one of the outposts like Bani Walid, helping to rally a last stand against NATO-backed forces.
Residents escaping Bani Walid on Monday and Tuesday reported days of intense street-to-street fighting. They began to slip out after Gaddafi forces abandoned some checkpoints on the outskirts.
"It's too dangerous to go outside. Militia men are hiding around the city and (pro-Gaddafi) green flags are everywhere," 25-year-old resident Abdulbaset Mohamed Mohamed said, driving towards Tripoli.
NTC field commanders said people in Bani Walid had been told via broadcast radio messages they had two days to leave town before it came under full-blown attack.
"I think only 10 percent of the people are Gaddafi supporters. They are fanatics. And the rest are waiting to be liberated. We have given them two more days to leave the city," NTC fighter Abumuslim Abdu told Reuters.
The country's new rulers have hesitated to employ heavy-handed tactics to seize Bani Walid, which is home to the Warfalla tribe, Libya's largest.
SECURITY AND LEGITIMACY
Libya's interim rulers have said that, along with taking control of pro-Gaddafi enclaves, capturing or killing the fugitive leader is a priority and only then could Libya be declared "liberated".
In the capital, officials trying to restore security said they needed to integrate the fighters who toppled Gaddafi into the police force to ensure the revolution's legitimacy.
Osama Abu Ras, a member of the Supreme Security Committee for Tripoli, told Reuters that Gaddafi's forces remained capable of firing missiles and the capital may be a potential target for such attacks.
"We have a very strong (military) front now in our favour but there is a threat of some missiles, including Grad missiles, and rockets. This could be a real threat," he said.
While Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), have remained elusive, three Gaddafi officials were reported to be in NTC custody.
Abdel Hafid Zlitni, a former Central Bank governor and finance minister, was captured in Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, NTC sources said on Tuesday.
They also said Mohammed Zwei, parliament speaker and former ambassador to Britain had been captured in the past week. Senior military officer Mustapha Kharroubi was also now under the NTC's watch, witnesses said.
Kharroubi is a veteran Gaddafi official and one of the few remaining officers who participated in Gaddafi's 1969 coup. It is believed he handed himself over to NTC officials late last month but this could not immediately be confirmed.
Gaddafi's family entourage in Libya is also dwindling. One of his sons, Saadi, arrived in neighbouring Niger on Sunday after crossing the southern Sahara desert frontier.
Two of Gaddafi's sons and his only biological daughter have made their to Algeria. One son is reported to have died in the war and three others, including Saif, are still on the run.
(Additional reporting by William Maclean, Hisham el-Dani and Alexander Dziadosz in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Ras Lanuf, Emma Farge in Benghazi and Barry Malone in Tunis; writing by Sylvia Westall; editing by Philippa Fletcher)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
Posted: 13 Sep 2011 07:59 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Children under 12 may soon be spared pat-downs and taking off their shoes as the U.S. begins to implement new airport security screening procedures, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said on Tuesday.
"We have been piloting also programs to deal with children under the age of 12 with respect to not only taking off their shoes but also pat-down procedures," Napolitano told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Tuesday. "And we hope, over the coming weeks and months to be able to begin rolling that out."
Napolitano testified at the hearing, "Ten Years After 9/11: Are We Safer?" Tuesday morning.
In March 2002, the Transportation Security Administration's first class of federal screeners numbered 80 individuals, according to Napolitano's testimony.
Today, 14 million passengers fly to, from and within the United States each week -- and 100 percent of them are screened against government watch lists, Napolitano said.
More than 52,000 TSA personnel serve at over 450 U.S. airports.
Thousands of these TSA officers will require additional training to incorporate the shifts in strategy, Napolitano said.
Committee Chairman Senator Joseph Lieberman asked Napolitano about changing security policy at airports, as the TSA moves from a "one-size-fits-all" approach to a "risk-based" strategy.
"There will always be some unpredictability built into the system," she said. "But I think the traveling public will begin to see some of these changes really in the coming months."
Napolitano also mentioned the expansion of "Global Entry," which prescreens passengers for international travel and saw its one-millionth passengers just a few weeks ago.
"That really facilitates going in and out of and crossing borders," she said.
(Writing by Molly O'Toole; Editing by Greg McCune)
Copyright © 2011 Reuters
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