US remembers Sept 11 attacks in solemnity

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NEW YORK, Sep 11 (Reuters) Americans stood in silence at the times of the Sept 11 attacks today, while the man behind them, Osama bin Laden, surfaced again to praise the suicide hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people six years ago.

New Yorkers observed moments of silence at the times the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center and when each of the towers collapsed. Ceremonies were also held at the Pentagon and at a Pennsylvania field, where the third and fourth planes crashed.

Bagpipes played, accompanied by a steady drum beat, in a park neighbouring the former disaster site, which is now a busy construction zone. Church bells pealed to mark the moment.

''Six years have passed, and our place is still by your side,'' New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the gathered family and friends of those who died.

Rain fell on the somber ceremony, where many wore funeral black to remember the 2,750 killed when the towers fell. Their names were read aloud, taking hours, in what has become an annual tradition.

In all, 2,993 people died, including the 19 hijackers, when the planes crashed in New York, at the Pentagon and at the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, field where the fourth plane crashed after passengers fought the al Qaeda hijackers.

In Washington, President George W Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their wives led a moment of silence on the White House lawn.

VOWING REVENGE Defense Secretary Robert Gates vowed revenge on anyone who might attack the United States, outside the section of the Pentagon that was struck.

''The enemies of America, the enemies of our values and our liberty, will never again rest easy for we will hunt them down relentlessly and without reservation,'' he said.

But in a reminder that the al Qaeda leader remains alive and at large, bin Laden defied the United States with a new audiotape. On it, he praised as ''a rarity among men: one of the 19 champions,'' Waleed al-Shehri, one of two Saudi brothers who helped slam the first plane into the World Trade Center.

Four days earlier, bin Laden urged Americans to convert to Islam in his first new video for nearly three years, following the al Qaeda pattern of issuing statements to mark every Sept 11.

The first of four New York moments of silence took place at 8:46 am (18.16 hrs IST), when the first plane struck. Others were observed when the second hit and when each tower fell.

Sept 11 fell on today for the first time since 2001, adding to the meaning of the day for many.

''There's a lot of symbolism about what happened, and the whole country is drawn into it,'' Elizabeth Boyer, whose cousin Edward Calderon was killed, said at the World Trade Center.

''This is the place. We don't have cemetery to go to.'' The attacks jolted Bush's presidency and led to the US invasion of Afghanistan to root out the al Qaeda plotters who had been protected there by the former Taliban government.

Bush also invaded Iraq, although many critics say the unpopular conflict has drained resources from the global war on terrorism he declared after Sept 11.

''We've killed God knows how many Iraqis. We probably couldn't name one of them, and they had nothing to do with 9/11,'' said Meyer Settler, 67, a bookkeeper on his way to work near the World Trade Center site.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke for less than a minute despite opposition from some relatives of the dead who had worried the presidential candidate might politicize the event.

Giuliani leads most public opinion polls for the Republican nomination in the 2008 White House race, largely on the strength of his performance on Sept 11, 2001.

In addition to tragedy, ''We also witnessed uncompromising strength and resilience as a people,'' Giuliani said. ''It was a day with no answers, but with an unending line of those who came forward to help one another.'' Reuters RAR RS2239

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