GOLBAHAR, Afghanistan — U.S. warplanes mounted the heaviest bombardment yet of the Taliban's forces along the front line near here Saturday, as an estimated 8,000 armed Pakistani volunteers massed at their country's rugged northwestern border, ready to join the Taliban inside Afghanistan.
The emergence of a new Taliban fighting ally, armed with rocket launchers and Kalashnikov rifles, threatened to open a troubling new front in the already complicated Afghan conflict.
On the ground in Afghanistan, the Pakistani fighters who gathered at the border would be indistinguishable from Taliban forces and therefore susceptible to allied attacks.
In Washington, a Pentagon official said 60 U.S. warplanes had struck 16 target areas in Afghanistan, mostly across the north and northeast.
The Pentagon said the targets included terrorist and Taliban command-and-control centers as well as storage and supply depots. The airstrikes hit moving Taliban forces and some troops positioned in garrisons, the official said.
The United States and Britain want to remove the Taliban from power and capture suspected terror mastermind Osama bin Laden. British defense chief Adm. Michael Boyce predicted Saturday that the war could take three to four years.
The opposition Northern Alliance's Foreign Ministry confirmed Saturday night that one of the areas hit was Aruqi, a village north of the front that is controlled by the alliance. At least one person was killed and six were injured.
The International Committee of the Red Cross' orthopedic surgery hospital in Golbahar, the closest medical facility, said the attack occurred about 6 p.m. One report said a family of 10 was missing, but medical officials refused to release final casualty figures until today. The Pentagon said it had no information about the incident.
It was at least the fourth time in seven days of U.S. airstrikes on Taliban positions north of Kabul, the capital, that a bomb had fallen on the wrong side of the front line. There were no reports of casualties in the other incidents.
The U.S. and British air campaign has been marked by a series of mistakes, including last week's second bombing in a month of Red Cross warehouses in Kabul. Such mistakes have the potential to further inflame anti-American feelings in the Muslim and Arab worlds.
It was a firebrand religious leader, Sofi Mohammadi--founder of a movement known as Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, or the Movement for the Enforcement of the Laws of Muhammad--who summoned volunteers to northwestern Pakistan to fight a jihad, or holy war. In recent years, Mohammadi has built a huge following in the extremely poor, religiously conservative outlaw area, where many adult males carry weapons.
On Saturday, as the mostly teenage volunteers rode or walked to the border area, they were showered with flower petals by local residents, some shouting, "Long live Osama bin Laden!" Graffiti on village walls urged the warriors on with such slogans as "New jihad. It is your duty to kill" and "Arms are the jewelry of pious Muslims."
Pakistani border troops said they would attempt to block the volunteers if they tried to cross the border as planned today.
But the militants said that the troops had so far made no effort to stop them and that they were counting on soldiers' reluctance to fire on fellow Pakistanis.
"If the government tries to stop us, we will declare a jihad against Pakistan," said Qari Faizal Rabbi, commander of the fundamentalist movement's forces in the Swat River Valley. "We are obligated to kill everyone who obeys Jews and Christians and disregards Muslims, even if they are from our own country."
Interviewed at a rooftop residence near the town of Mingaora, Rabbi--one of the movement's senior commanders--said the volunteer fighters first plan to join Taliban forces engaged against the Northern Alliance in the battle for the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Then they will turn their guns on American troops, he said.
"The No. 1 terrorist country in the world is America," said Rabbi, who was clad in black and surrounded by teenage black-turbaned supporters bearing Kalashnikovs and old British Enfield rifles.
Rabbi said the movement was encouraged by the Taliban's successful capture and execution last week of famed Afghan resistance fighter and Taliban foe Abdul Haq. "He was against our holy mission," Rabbi said.
The Swat Valley and other tribal border areas are known as the Wild West of Pakistan, a haven for desperadoes, smugglers and gun-bearing Pushtun clans. But the existence of a private army, even in such an isolated place, might give pause to the government of President Pervez Musharraf, which has joined the international coalition's attempt to bring down the Taliban and capture Bin Laden.