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[0] Heat bombs blitz hideouts.

Byline: JUSTINE SMITH

AMERICAN warplanes have dropped devastating new bombs on al-Qaeda die-hards after Allied troops were beaten back in the biggest ground attack yet.

B52s blasted the terrorists with thermobaric missiles, which can kill men hiding in deep caves, after a failed bid to storm their mountain hideout.

Around 1,500 US-led troops were forced back by an unexpected force of 5,000 enemy fighters who had secretly regrouped in the hills 100 miles east of Kabul.

The 2,000lb laser-guided bombs, designed for the conflict in Afghanistan, create a high-pressure, high-temperature blast powerful enough to suck the air out of caves, suffocating anyone hiding inside.

The milliseconds in which pressure builds before detonation are enough to create an intense explosion with maximum heat.

Military analyst and retired Air Force Major General Don Shepperd said: "It'll kill the people that are in there, but it won't collapse the cave.

"Then you can go in and find out what's in there, that's the idea behind these, if it works perfectly."

He added: "It sucks air in and out of caves because of the thermobaric pressure that builds up there so it's very effective against caves."

The Pentagon revealed in January that it was rushing 10 thermobaric bombs - or fuel-air explosives - to Afghanistan after successful tests in the Nevada desert.

The ground offensive defeat on Saturday revealed gaping holes in intelligence reports. Agents seriously underestimated the strength of al-Qaeda resistance, leaving Allied soldiers severely outnumbered.

One US soldier and three Afghan-Allied fighters were killed fleeing mortar, rocket and machine gun fire. Dozens more were injured, including six Americans. More than 60 US advisers leading the offensive had to be rescued by helicopters from snow-capped mountains after being ambushed in their four-wheel drives.

Last night a pall of thick, black smoke hung over the mountains after they were pounded by 80 bombs of different types in one of the most intensive US assaults since December.

Al-Qaeda suspects being held at Camp X-Ray remained defiant yesterday as they started the fifth day of their hunger strike.

Almost two thirds of the 300 detainees have taken part in the protest, which started after a praying prisoner was stripped of his makeshift turban.

The Muslim prisoners - including five from Britain - have been given copies of the Koran and are played a taped call to prayer.

But they cannot wear turbans in case they try to hid weapons in them.

Six men have been treated for dehydration with intravenous drips - one against his wishes - since they stopped eating on Wednesday.

They rejected a deal allowing them to wear turbans on condition they could be searched at any time.

The prisoners, who have been held for two months, have been warned that they face the death penalty although no evidence has been given against them.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday said he still had no idea how they would be dealt with.

He said they could be prosecuted by military tribunal, in US criminal courts, tried in their home countries, released or detained indefinitely.

America has refused to give in to international pressure to improve conditions.

The prisoners are gagged, bound and blindfolded and not allowed lawyers.

Amnesty International said the hunger strike showed the dangers of the "legal limbo into which the prisoners have been thrown".

The human rights campaign group urged the US government to allow them the right to challenge their detention.

CAPTION(S):

..and finally detonates..; Bomb nears its target..; ..Cloud of fuel forms..; ..and keeps expanding..
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 4, 2002
Words:585
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