Afghanistan's ruling Taliban cranked up their propaganda yesterday, accusing the US of bombing a hospital and using chemical weapons as Britain signalled it might soon send in troops. \nThe Afghan capital, Kabul, spent its first bomb-free night of the two-week US-led military campaign to capture Osama bin Laden, but the Taliban said at least 50 patients were killed when bombs hit the hospital in the eastern city of Herat. \n"During last night's raids on the 100-bed Herat hospital between 50 to 70 people were killed," Information Ministry official Abdul Hanan Himat said. "All medical equipment and facilities at the hospital were destroyed." \nWith the source of an anthrax-in-the-mail outbreak in the US still a mystery and the country in the grip of germ warfare jitters, the Taliban also accused the US-led coalition of using chemical and biological weapons. \n"Today in my contact with doctors in Herat and Kandahar, they told me that they have found signs that Americans are using biological and chemical weapons in their attacks," Himat said. \nWashington immediately denied the charge. \nThe Taliban also said they had found pieces of a US helicopter near the southern city of Kandahar, and Qatar's al-Jazeera television network showed footage of what it said the Taliban described as new aircraft wheels and a piece of metal stencilled with the English words "Shock. Loud Engineering." \nMore than 100 US special forces raided a command center near Kandahar used by Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and an airfield on Friday and Britain said yesterday its troops were ready to go in at "very short notice." \nSpeaking after government officials gave the strongest hint yet over the weekend that ground troops might be deployed. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon declined to say when British troops might be sent. \n"I'm not going to put a timescale on that. But certainly we always have troops ready to go at very short notice," he told BBC radio. \nTaliban leader Omar praised his forces who he said had "achieved significant successes recently." \n"I hope that Almighty Allah will make the Islamic Emirate [Taliban government] victorious over the oppressive American government," the private Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported him as saying in a statement. \nAIP said Omar issued the statement from a location near Kandahar, and he expressed condolences for those killed in US-led air raids or during anti-US protests around the world. \nWith the leaders of the US-led coalition highlighting the approach of Ramadan and winter in their public comments, the Taliban's civil war foes said that they were preparing a push to recapture the strategic northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif. \nOne said US advisers had briefed General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who will head any attack on what was once his stronghold. \n"Now our troops are readying themselves for a full attack on the town," General Baryalai, a deputy to opposition Defense Minister General Muhammad Fahim, said Sunday. \nNorthern Alliance commanders say fighters from bin Laden's al-Qaeda network have been gathering in Mazar-i-Sharif, which straddles a key supply route to the Afghan capital Kabul. \nUS Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington wanted to see Kabul fall by winter, which is due in the next few weeks. \nWashington, its main ally Britain and other nations have been pushing for some form of early agreement on a post-Taliban government. \nAfghan factions, fighting over the spoils after forcing the Soviets to withdraw, killed thousands of Kabul residents before the Taliban seized the capital in 1996. \nWTO director General Mike Moore meanwhile said trade ministers would hold their meeting on schedule next month in Qatar despite security concerns following the strikes on Afghanistan. \nMoore told reporters after meeting Qatari leaders to discuss preparations for the meeting that the level of participation would not be affected by security concerns, adding: "We expect 141 countries to attend." \nThe meeting is expected to try to launch a new round of global trade talks.
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