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Central Asia 'Essential' to US Operation Against Bin Laden - 2001-09-25

In the wake of the terrorist attacks two weeks ago, Pentagon officials have confirmed a buildup of U.S. aircraft and naval forces in the Gulf region. But secret ground operations aimed against terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden are more likely to originate from countries to the north of Afghanistan, where he is believed to be hiding.

The latest official list of U.S. military personnel abroad shows there is just one member of America's armed forces in Tajikistan and only three in Uzbekistan. The biggest U.S. military contingent posted in any of Afghanistan's northern neighbors is in Turkmenistan: eight, seven of them Marine guards at the American Embassy.

That published list is six months old. Now, Pentagon officials will not say how many U.S. military personnel are in the same three countries.

But they do acknowledge these Central Asian nations are "essential" to any U.S. led operations against terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden along with terrorist training camps and other support facilities in Afghanistan.

And they say U.S. authorities are "actively engaged" with the highest officials in those countries.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declines to discuss specifics of the cooperation being offered in the region.

But he indicates to reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday, that U.S. preparations for military action are well advanced.

"If and when the president decides that there is a specific activity that he wants us to be engaged in, you can be certain we'll be prepared to be engaged in it," Secretary Rumsfeld said.

There are unconfirmed reports that U.S. and British commando units may already be present in the region, along with some aircraft.

And it is believed the unmanned U.S. reconnaissance drone lost over Afghanistan may have been launched from one of the northern neighbors. The Taleban says the aircraft was shot down over a province which borders Uzbekistan.

The drones have a published range of 600 kilometers - making it more likely the drone was launched from the north rather than from Pakistan.

Whatever the case, details of any operations mounted from the north may never be revealed. In his speech to Congress last week announcing U.S. plans to target global terrorism, President Bush said while there may be what he termed "dramatic strikes" visible on television, there will also be "covert operations" that he says will remain "secret even in success."