British troops reported to be joining U.S. forces in Afghanistan

Britain is sending about 1,000 troops to join the U.S.-led ground war in Afghanistan, according to media reports issued Tuesday, but the Defense Ministry said it had made no decisions, the Associated Press reported. Citing senior defense officials, the British Broadcasting Corp. said about 600 Royal Marine commandos and several hundred special forces personnel--currently taking part in a military exercise in Oman--would be deployed to join the ground assault. Four British ships participating in the exercise, which ends this weekend, also will stay behind to join the Afghan campaign, the BBC said. Meanwhile, former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook suggested that there was still time for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to hang onto power even if it handed over Osama bin Laden. The government has not announced whether British troops will join the ground campaign, but says it remains an option. The chiefs of Britain's Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were reported Monday to be drawing up plans for long- term military involvement in the war against terrorism. In Afghanistan, U.S. jets swooped down to strike Taliban front lines and a bin Laden stronghold north of Kabul Tuesday, watched by opposition fighters hoping that the American bombardment will open the way for their advance. Opposition officials also reported U.S. attacks around the key northern city of Mazar-e- Sharif, where an opposition offensive to recapture the stronghold faltered last week. Missiles set fire to critical Taliban oil supplies in the southern city of Kandahar. In recent days, the United States has shifted strategy, drawing planes away from urban areas to target the front-line positions of the Taliban and their allies in bin Laden's al-Qaida network which face the opposition Northern Alliance. The goal is to enable the alliance to advance toward the capital, Kabul, and Mazar-e-Sharif to break the back of Taliban resistance. From rooftops U.S. jets could be seen as tiny white specks roaring far overhead, before they swooped down to unleash their bombs. A series of nine blasts from several miles away could be heard. Along the Kabul front, Taliban fighters were holding their ground Tuesday, responding with rockets and mortars. One rocket slammed into the bazaar at Charikar, 30 miles north of Kabul, killing two people, including a 60-year-old vegetable vendor. In Kandahar, the South Asian Dispatch Agency reported U.S. jets struck an oil depot and a fuel convoy, sending a thick cloud of black smoke rising into the clear blue sky. U.S. planes also targeted an asphalt plant, setting back Taliban efforts to repair the runway at Kandahar airport, which has been pounded repeatedly during the air campaign, the agency said. The agency also reported that U.S. jets late Monday bombed a mountain on the western outskirts of Kandahar where Taliban troops were trying to repair a radar station which had been heavily damaged earlier in the air campaign.