Afghanistan's Taliban militia claimed Saturday they had shot down an unmanned United States spy plane in the northern province of Samangan, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported.
Quoting Mawlawi Najibullah, a senior Afghan diplomat in Peshawar, AIP said the unmanned plane was shot down with heavy machine guns early Saturday in the northern province of Samangan, situated close to the border with Uzbekistan.
It said the incident, the first claim of any military contact between the US and the Taliban, took place in the village of Sang Salad.
No further details were immediately available.
Washington has all but declared war on Afghanistan's Taliban, who have defied a US ultimatum to hand over Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Unmanned spy planes normally fly at high altitude, far outside the range of heavy machine guns.
Observers also noted that the Taliban had failed to shoot down a single opposition plane in years of civil war.
In another development, a second wave of US troops and warplanes deployed to staging points near Afghanistan Saturday, as the global hunt for suspects linked to last week's devastating attacks on New York and the Pentagon produced more arrests.
US President George W. Bush, meanwhile, was preparing to officially end his country's period of mourning for the 6,800 people estimated killed in the September 11 attacks to concentrate on planning America's new "war on terror."
The campaign is initially targeted at the Saudi-born extremist Bush blames for the mass murder in the United States: Osama bin Laden, who lives in exile in Afghanistan.
But it is also to go worldwide, as the United States rallies other countries to help it destroy bin Laden's international al-Qaeda network and other terrorist groups with "global reach."
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday signed orders for more support aircraft to be sent overseas, an air force official said, boosting a deployment that includes several aircraft carriers and thousands of combat-ready marines and soldiers.
About 40 aircraft have been tasked, the official said on condition of anonymity, including B-52 and B-1 bombers, U-2 reconnaissance planes and RC-135 surveillance planes. "They will be moving shortly if they haven't started," he said.
Though details are scarce, the US buildup has centered on southwest Asia and the Gulf, within striking distance of Afghanistan.
A refusal by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia to hand over bin Laden, repeated Friday, prompted White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to warn the Islamic regime: "We will defeat you."
Bush "has made it abundantly clear that this nation is preparing for war, because war has been declared against the United States," Fleischer said.
Pakistani sources with close links to bin Laden dismissed rumors the terror suspect had left Afghanistan. "This is the moment he has been waiting for. His prayers are coming true," one source told AFP.
The Taliban claimed Saturday they had shot down an unmanned US spy plane, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. UN officials in Kabul said the Taliban ordered them to suspend all communications to the outside world.
Bush was spending Saturday in his Camp David retreat, planning the US retaliation for the attacks, in which 19 hijackers took over four domestic US aircraft, using two of them to destroy New York's World Trade Center and one to damage the Pentagon. Another crashed in Pennsylvania before reaching its target.
The president told the US public in a speech before Congress Thursday that "justice will be done" for the outrages, vowing a multi-pronged effort involving military action, intelligence gathering, covert operations and financial efforts.
On Sunday, Bush is to symbolically end the period of official mourning for the 6,818 people listed as dead or missing in the attacks when he takes part in a ceremony with marines "to proudly return the American flag to full-staff."
Authorities in other countries, meanwhile, provided some needed breakthroughs in the FBI investigation into the attacks, which has been befuddled by the apparent use of false identities by the hijackers and some suspects.
Anti-terrorist police in Britain were questioning four men and one woman arrested in connection with the assaults while Germany issued arrest warrants for two suspects, 29-year-old Mohamed Abdullah Binalshibh of Yemen and 26-year-old German national Said Bahaji, who was born to a Moroccan father.
French counterintelligence authorities were interrogating seven suspected Islamic militants picked up Friday on allegations they were plotting to attack the US Embassy in Paris and other official US buildings in France.
Yemen launched a crackdown on "Arab Afghans" believed to have links to bin Laden, while Venezuela was investigating the bank account activity of some 11 people suspected of having ties to those involved in the US attacks.
Washington has been rallying international support to its cause, with Bush saying in his speech Thursday: "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."
NATO allies, particularly Britain, have offered strong support, while Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged Moscow's support, saying "all the most powerful nations, and in all cases the members of the UN Security Council, are intent on fighting terrorism together."
Bush will meet Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien on Monday and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi the next day, following his recent talks with the British, French and Indonesian leaders.
Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell also discussed the situation with visiting top officials from China, Germany, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw planned to travel to Iran, Jordan, the Palestine Authority, and Israel next week, to help boost support for the US-led coalition.
A number of Islamic nations have offered support, despite mounting concern of a backlash from fundamentalist organizations.
In Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, four people were killed Friday during protests by hardline Islamic groups opposed to Pakistan's support for possible US strikes on Afghanistan.
The spiritual head of Kabul's main Wazir Akbar Khan mosque said the United States would be defeated in the same manner as the British and Soviet "invaders" of the past.
"Bush has called it a crusade, so it's not a war against Afghans, Arabs or any other nation. It's a war against Muslims all over the world," he said.
Human rights organizations, meanwhile, expressed concern as a growing tide of Afghans fled their homes ahead of a likely war, while neighboring countries sealed their borders.
Economic fall-out continued to ripple around the world, meanwhile, with most analysts now agreeing that a US -- and possibly global -- recession had been triggered by the disaster.
Wall Street had its worst week of trading since the Great Depression, slumping 14.26 percent to end Friday at 8,235.81 points. The effect has dragged down other stock markets from Tokyo to London.
US airlines have announced around 100,000 job cuts in the past week, and the US Congress late Friday approved a 15-billion-dollar rescue package to stop several of them going bankrupt as they implement tough new security measures and planes fly half-empty. European and Asian airlines are now also struggling -- WASHINGTON (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)