U.S. Special Forces put end to occupation of hospital by al-Qaida

Afghan leader calls for U.S. peacekeeping role

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2002

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Afghan troops backed by U.S. Special Forces wearing ''I love New York'' buttons lobbed grenades into hospital Monday then stormed the burning ward, killing all six al-Qaida gunmen in a firefight.

The gunmen, who had holed up there for nearly two months, had repeatedly refused to surrender.

After the assault, the bloodied ward was littered with limbs blown off by the grenades. The bodies of the pale, thin fighters lay about the floor and under a bed, clothed in sweaters and uniforms.

The attack on the al-Qaida holdouts was ordered after they repeatedly refused to surrender. The wounded Arab fighters had been brought to the Mir Wais Hospital in Kandahar by their comrades shortly before anti-Taliban forces took over the city Dec. 7.

Armed with weapons and explosives, they threatened to blow themselves up if anyone tried to take them prisoner, Afghan authorities said.

American troops could be heard shouting ''stand clear!'' as heavily armed Afghan fighters tossed explosives into the hospital wing, shattering windows, in a dramatic final attack shortly after noon calls to Islamic prayers echoed over the city.

The crash of heavy gunfire reverberated through the area as troops stormed the building. American and Afghan troops had surrounded the hospital before dawn and fought intermittently with the gunmen through the morning, setting parts of the building on fire.

''These Arabs fought to the death,'' said a U.S. soldier who identified himself only as Maj. Chris. ''Up to the last minute, we told every man to surrender. None of them listened.''

Afghan and U.S. soldiers sealed off roads leading to the hospital and refused to allow journalists to approach the building. Afghan fighters, citing instructions from U.S. Special Forces, also ordered journalists off nearby roofs where they were watching the attack.

In Washington, Admiral John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there were no casualties among U.S. troops. He said several Afghans were wounded but ''only one would be considered serious.''

Some of the injured Afghans were transported to the nearby U.S. military base at the Kandahar airport for treatment, said Maj. Mike Gibler of the 101st Airborne Division. He did not know their number or condition.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, a key official said more than 100 of its citizens are in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, making Saudis by far the largest group of terrorist suspects detained on this remote U.S. naval base.

Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef urged the United States to turn over the Saudi detainees for interrogation at home. In Washington, President Bush said ''we'll make a decision on a case-by-case basis as to whether they go back to Saudi Arabia or not.'' The president did not comment on the number of Saudis being held.

Initially about 10 al-Qaida fighters were holed up in the hospital. One blew himself up with a grenade Jan. 8 when Afghan guards thwarted his escape attempt, and two others were captured in December. Two men were also said to have escaped, but that was never confirmed.

About two weeks ago, food and water were cut off, but Afghan officials believe sympathetic staff may have smuggled in provisions.

Afghan authorities said the assault was ordered before dawn after the al-Qaida fighters refused a surrender ultimatum. The Arabs opened fire when they saw American soldiers approaching.

''The Arabs saw them, and they started firing,'' said Najabullah, an Afghan commander. He said the al-Qaida men also threw grenades.

As many as 20 grenades and other explosives were thrown into the ward in the final assault, witnessed by The Associated Press from a rooftop. Then came long bursts of automatic weapons fire and pistol shots.

Afghan commander Lali Saliki said after entering the building, he killed the last gunman as the man groped for a gun to keep shooting.

Most of the U.S. troops wore ''I Love New York'' buttons and New York Yankees caps in homage to the Sept. 11 terror attack on the World Trade Center towers.

In Washington, Bush promised visiting Afghan leader Hamid Karzai that the United States is committed to building a lasting partnership with Afghanistan. Bush announced a $50 million installment in U.S. aid to help rebuild the war-torn nation.

Karzai appealed for a broad mandate for the peacekeeping mission, telling NBC's ''Today'' show that many Afghans ''have asked me to ask the international security forces to go to the other parts of the country.'' The force is currently limited to the capital, Kabul.

However, White House spokes-person Ari Fleischer said the president did not envision a U.S. role in the Afghan peacekeeping force.

''The president's philosophy is that the United States should not be overly deployed in peacekeeping around the world,'' Fleischer said.

In Kabul, peacekeepers began distributing leaflets about their mission to ease residents' ''fear and apprehension'' about foreign soldiers, said John Turner, a spokesman for the force.

In an interview with CNN after the meeting with Bush, Karzai promised he would turn over to the United States Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader of the al-Qaida network, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar if Afghan forces captured the pair.

Karzai also told CNN he would stay on as prime minister beyond the current interim period if the country's tribal leaders re-elect him in a grand council or loya jirga to take place this spring.

CBS News reported, meanwhile, that bin Laden was in Pakistan having kidney dialysis the night before the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon. Citing Pakistani intelligence sources, CBS said bin Laden was spirited into a military hospital in Rawalpindi for kidney treatment.

The network quoted government officials, however, as denying the al-Qaida leader was treated that night. Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has said he believes bin Laden has died of kidney disease.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States has seen nothing to substantiate the CBS report. U.S. officials have said they've seen no evidence that bin Laden has had severe kidney problems.

In other developments:

-- Scotland Yard's Anti-Terrorist Squad said Monday it was investigating the distribution of three videotapes in London that may have been used to recruit young Muslim men into the al-Qaida terrorist network. Their existence was first reported Sunday by The Observer newspaper, which said it bought copies of them from London's radical Finsbury Park Mosque, run by Egyptian-born Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Masri.

-- Mourners at the Kabul Zoo bade farewell Monday to Marjan, the lion half-blinded by a grenade in the mid-1990s who came to symbolize Afghanistan's suffering during 23 years of conflict. Marjan died Saturday of liver and kidney failure.

-- An Army helicopter made a hard landing in eastern Afghanistan on Monday, and soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were injured, a senior defense official said. Initial reports from the scene, near the town of Khost, indicated no one was killed, the official said.

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