US diplomatic sources said Thursday that the American government was discussing plans to carry out a military operation against bases in Afghanistan, an operation that would ultimately include the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on Friday.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell confirmed a day earlier serious US suspicions of Saudi-born dissident Bin Laden masterminding Tuesday's suicide attacks in the US, in which there were no survivors among the 266 people on board the flights, and thousands of other casualties.
Powell was the first US official to publicly finger Bin Laden as the prime suspect in the attacks.
According to the paper's unnamed diplomatic sources, the operation under discussion is a "massive retaliatory attack."
Aside from a cruise missile attack on terror bases in Afghanistan, the paper added, the government was also debating a ground attack on the country using elite forces. A plan to use select NATO forces in such an assault was also under discussion.
The New York Times reported Thursday that senior members of the government had authorized feverish discussions by the leadership on the possible options - everything from ground operations to military aide for Afghan opposition groups against the Taliban.
"At this stage every option is on the table. No plan is being ruled out," a senior official had been quoted by the newspaper as saying.
International aid workers fled from the capital city of Kabul on Wednesday as residents worried about a possible US military strike.
Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf officially told the US on Thursday that, should the need arise, Pakistan would give the US wide use of its airspace. News agencies also reported Thursday that senior members of the Taliban government had left their homes and offices for hidden locations in the state, probably for fear of an American strike.
The Taliban warned Islam Abad against cooperating with the US, and vowed to defend the country by every means.
Pakistan closed Karachi airport amid "intensive military moves," according to Al Jazeera satellite channel.
The moves were interpreted as arrival of US forces, according to the station.
Those included leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, said the reports.
Citing diplomats in New York, the Israeli newspaper said there is a difference of opinion regarding whether the US should carry out immediate punitive military strikes alone, or wait for the creation of an international coalition to help carry out the operations.
The Wall Street Journal on Thursday quoted diplomats from Israel, Jordan and Egypt as saying that the US had asked them to increase their cooperation, particularly in the intelligence field.
The Israeli paper added that hawks in the government are pushing for US President George W. Bush to order an immediate strike, while some experts argue for creating a coalition similar to the one created against Iraq a decade ago. They believe such a coalition would help deflect the expected opposition in the Muslim world to carrying out operations against Afghanistan.
The Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic group that rules Afghanistan, said Wednesday that Bin Laden had denied any responsibility for Tuesday's attacks, and have demanded to see evidence backing allegations that he runs a global terrorism network responsible for the hijackings. A number of news agencies reported Thursday that he has been placed under house arrest by Taliban authorities.
The experts say that the only way to annihilate Bin Laden is in a short-term strike using commando forces or by a general ground invasion of Afghanistan. But they also are aware that the ground war would likely cost American lives. Afghanistan's geographic location and the type of governments of neighboring countries make it difficult for a comprehensive punitive strike.
At another level and in slow but steady revelations on the identities and origins of the suicide attackers, US Attorney General John Ashcroft said Thursday that at least 18 hijackers, all of whom had tickets as passengers, commandeered the four planes used in the attacks. A government official said another two dozen are believed to have assisted them.
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley (Republican) said terrorism specialists told him that some of the hijackers had connections to Bin Laden, and that others were connected to militant organizations, such as the Palestinian Fateh movement and the Lebanese Hizbollah.
There are also reports that the hijackers were of Egyptian and Saudi origin. Israel Radio quoted an NBC report saying that one of the suspected hijack pilots, Mohammed Atta, had been involved in bus attacks in Israel several years ago.
The FBI investigation into Tuesday's terror attacks in the US become increasingly focused on the Middle East on Thursday as more potential evidence was seized and a man was apprehended by German authorities in Hamburg.
CNN added that information found in a rental car left in Boston's Logan Airport led investigators to two more men who were pilots: Mohammed Atta and Marwan Yousef Alshehi. Inside the car was an Arabic-language flight manual, a copy of the Holy Quran and a photo of Bin Laden, it was alleged.
The two men held passports from the United Arab Emirates. A Florida driver's license was issued to Atta on May 2, 2001, and he previously held an Egyptian driver's license.
Both Atta and Alshehhii were believed to have stayed in an apartment in Hamburg prior to arriving in the US.
An official representative for security in Hamburg's government that people with those names - both from the United Arab Emirates - had been registered as Hamburg residents, and had been studying at the city's Technical University. A third suspect had also been enrolled at the university. None of the three had come to the attention of police before the attacks.
German police said Thursday they had detained an airport worker in an investigation on the attacks.
"We have in the search for a suspect of Moroccan origin searched an apartment in Hamburg and provisionally detained one person, a man," the head of the Hamburg state police, Gerhard Mueller said.
US officials have identified more than a dozen hijackers of Middle Eastern descent in Tuesday's attacks and gathered evidence linking them to bin Laden and other terrorist networks, law enforcement officials said. In all, some 50 people may have been involved in the plot, government officials say.
One set of hijackers is believed to have crossed from Canada and have ties to Bin Laden.
Heavily armed federal agents and police searched two hotels in the Boston area, where officials reportedly identified five Arab men as suspects and seized the rental car.
Time magazine said in a special report that US officials told it that each of the "terrorist teams had a certified pilot with them, some of whom had flown for Saudi Airlines." Time said two of the men had been placed on a border watch list which should have denied them entry into the country, but they got in anyway and appear to have been on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.
The investigation swept from a Boston hotel to Florida and points beyond - all in an attempt to determine who was behind the attacks in which two hijacked airliners barreled into the 110-story towers, a third dove into the Pentagon and a fourth crashed in western Pennsylvania.
A Venice, Florida, man said FBI agents interviewed him and said that two men who stayed in his home last summer while training at a local flight school were among the hijackers.
CNN reported that the two men were Adnan Bukhari and his brother Ameer Abbas Bukhari, who, according to the landlord, claimed to be Saudi pilots.
According to Haaretz and media reports, a total 10 people were detained at two New York airports Thursday afternoon, several of them carrying fake IDs and small knives, media reports said.
In once case, a SWAT team with guns drawn forcibly took three passengers off a plane bound for Los Angeles, ABC News reported Friday.
Reports quoted officials as saying that they may have thwarted another possible terror attempt, like those that killed thousands in New York and Washington on Tuesday, when they took the nine men and one woman into custody and again grounded all aircraft.
Four men were detained between 4:15 P.M. and 5 P.M., shortly after commercial flights resumed at John F. Kennedy International Airport. They men were Saudi Arabian, and were carrying open tickets from September 11 -the day of the attacks - to various places in the United States, officials were quoted as saying. A female airport worker was also detained for allegedly acting in a support role.
Earlier Thursday, police at La Guardia Airport detained five men who also had knives, fake pilot licenses and identification and open flight tickets.
At least one of the suspected suicide attackers in the United States had been questioned by police in the Philippines days before the devastating attacks, but was freed for lack of evidence against him, an official said Friday -- Albawaba.com
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