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Heavy bombs rock eastern Afghan towns

Posted: Friday, March 08, 2002

GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- U.S. troops scoured caves and cleared ridges of al-Qaida diehards Thursday, but sandstorms and high winds grounded helicopters and threatened to disrupt the U.S.-led air and ground offensive.

After some of the heaviest bombing in the six-day offensive, a number of supply flights were delayed or canceled because of the worsening weather. U.S. officials acknowledged pilots and troops on the ground would have a harder time routing the fighters in such bad conditions.

Maj. Bryan Hilfery, spokesperson for the 10th Mountain Division, said 100 militants were killed Wednesday. Allied attacks also destroyed some of their heavy weaponry -- which includes mortars, small cannons, rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

''We're continuing to bolster our efforts, and units are continuing to maneuver in fire today, clearing ridgelines, caves and pockets of al-Qaida resistance,'' Hilfery said at Bagram air base, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.

U.S. officials and Afghan commanders said al-Qaida sympathizers -- including some from Pakistan -- had crossed into the mountains to join the fight. Afghans said enemy forces may now number 1,000.

The commanders insisted the routes to the mountain passes had since been sealed -- even though Taliban fighters managed to bring some of their slain comrades to the foothills of Surmad for burial Tuesday. Surmad is 18 miles south of Gardez, the capital of Paktia Province. Gardez is about 75 miles south of Kabul, the capital.

U.S. officials have said hundreds of fugitive fighters have been killed since Operation Anaconda began and small numbers detained. Eight American and three Afghan troops have died in the offensive.

Five international peacekeepers were killed Wednesday when a Soviet-era missile they were trying to defuse exploded, the first fatalities in the force. And on Thursday in Kandahar, a fire at an ammunition depot near the coalition base killed three U.S.-allied Afghan fighters. Canadian officials said the Afghans may have tripped a booby trap, sparking a fire.

New troops were headed to the region, including about 200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, equipped with 16 Apache helicopters and four CH-47 Chinook; and 107 members of a Canadian infantry unit rotating in.

Thursday dawned over eastern Paktia province with thunderous blasts from U.S. B-52 bombers shaking Gardez and the mountains southwest of here. Dozens of U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters, armed with 30 mm guns and Hellfire missiles, pounded targets in the narrow, craggy gorges.

The air bombardment, felt 30 miles away, appeared heavier than in recent days as the United States accelerated efforts to crack the al-Qaida resistance.

Residents of several mountain villages have fled the assault, which has pummeled Shah-e-Kot and the nearby hamlets of Babar Khiel, Shai Kha Khiel, Zweigi Qalai, Marzak and Mughal Qala, said Hafeezullah, a member of the Surmad town council.

U.S. and Afghan forces detained at least two people from Mughal Qala on Wednesday -- a father and his 10-year-old son who had returned to get their belongings, said resident Ali Baht.

The U.S. operations have sparked resentment among some villagers, who fear that civilians -- including wives and children of fighters -- were being killed. Resentment is also high in Surmad, because U.S.-led forces detained the police chief before the offensive began on suspicion of being a Taliban sympathizer.

Storm clouds moved in low over the region in the afternoon and sandstorms whipped up, indicating snow in the mountains. Three Chinook helicopters flew into the Shah-e-Kot area on supply missions under low cloud cover, but the worsening weather could slow further air and ground action.

''There's obviously visibility concerns, but in those types of operations they're prepared to deal with it,'' said Sgt. Major Richard Czizik of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

Combat troops are trained to fight in any conditions, but ''obviously you've got discomfort issues,'' he said.

Front-line commander Abdul Matin Hasankhiel said the battle to break al-Qaida was taking longer than expected because of the difficult terrain and harsh conditions.

''These are very high mountains and former mujahedeen bases that the Russians couldn't defeat -- even with their heaviest bombing and best soldiers,'' he said, referring to the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Defense Ministry dispensed intelligence-gathering experts from northern Afghanistan to investigate reports that al-Qaida sympathizers had reinforced the militants' ranks in recent days, intelligence officials said in Gardez.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the extra forces were arriving in small groups from Gardez, Ghazni, Khost and Surmad -- as well as a few coming across the border from Pakistan.

Hasankhiel said some sympathizers had managed to cross the Pakistani border Saturday and Sunday to reach the Taliban and al-Qaida mountain hideouts. But he said the paths had since been blocked by coalition forces.

''This is the heart of al-Qaida and the Taliban and when this is finished al-Qaida will be finished in Afghanistan,'' he said.

Hafeezullah, of the Surmad town council, said men from the Surmand district may have gone to battle as well to help Saif Rahman, the Taliban commander heading the troops in the mountains.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. forces, has said there was no sign of dug-in al-Qaida and Taliban fighters trying to flee the region -- which commanders say they have encircled.

However, as recently as Tuesday night, Taliban holdouts brought the bodies of at least two fighters from Shah-e-Kot to the village of Surmad for burial, said shopkeeper Abdullah Jan.

When asked how the Taliban could sneak by the allied forces blocking the mountain paths, he said: ''There are hundreds of smuggler routes,'' across the rugged terrain.

CREDIT:AP Photo/Axel Seidemann

CAPTION:Medical personnel carry an injured U.S. Army soldier on a stretcher off a medical plane that brought him from Afghanistan to the Ramstein, Germany, U.S. Air Force Base Thursday. Thirteen U.S. soldiers, wounded in recent fighting in Afghanistan, arrived in this plane for medical treatment in the nearby Landstuhl Medical center.

HEAD:Heavy bombs rock eastern Afghan towns

BYLINE1:By KATHY GANNON

BYLINE2:Associated Press Writer

GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- U.S. troops scoured caves and cleared ridges of al-Qaida diehards Thursday, but sandstorms and high winds grounded helicopters and threatened to disrupt the U.S.-led air and ground offensive.

After some of the heaviest bombing in the six-day offensive, a number of supply flights were delayed or canceled because of the worsening weather. U.S. officials acknowledged pilots and troops on the ground would have a harder time routing the fighters in such bad conditions.

Maj. Bryan Hilfery, spokesperson for the 10th Mountain Division, said 100 militants were killed Wednesday. Allied attacks also destroyed some of their heavy weaponry -- which includes mortars, small cannons, rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

''We're continuing to bolster our efforts, and units are continuing to maneuver in fire today, clearing ridgelines, caves and pockets of al-Qaida resistance,'' Hilfery said at Bagram air base, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.

U.S. officials and Afghan commanders said al-Qaida sympathizers -- including some from Pakistan -- had crossed into the mountains to join the fight. Afghans said enemy forces may now number 1,000.

The commanders insisted the routes to the mountain passes had since been sealed -- even though Taliban fighters managed to bring some of their slain comrades to the foothills of Surmad for burial Tuesday. Surmad is 18 miles south of Gardez, the capital of Paktia Province. Gardez is about 75 miles south of Kabul, the capital.

U.S. officials have said hundreds of fugitive fighters have been killed since Operation Anaconda began and small numbers detained. Eight American and three Afghan troops have died in the offensive.

Five international peacekeepers were killed Wednesday when a Soviet-era missile they were trying to defuse exploded, the first fatalities in the force. And on Thursday in Kandahar, a fire at an ammunition depot near the coalition base killed three U.S.-allied Afghan fighters. Canadian officials said the Afghans may have tripped a booby trap, sparking a fire.

New troops were headed to the region, including about 200 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, equipped with 16 Apache helicopters and four CH-47 Chinook; and 107 members of a Canadian infantry unit rotating in.

Thursday dawned over eastern Paktia province with thunderous blasts from U.S. B-52 bombers shaking Gardez and the mountains southwest of here. Dozens of U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters, armed with 30 mm guns and Hellfire missiles, pounded targets in the narrow, craggy gorges.

The air bombardment, felt 30 miles away, appeared heavier than in recent days as the United States accelerated efforts to crack the al-Qaida resistance.

Residents of several mountain villages have fled the assault, which has pummeled Shah-e-Kot and the nearby hamlets of Babar Khiel, Shai Kha Khiel, Zweigi Qalai, Marzak and Mughal Qala, said Hafeezullah, a member of the Surmad town council.

U.S. and Afghan forces detained at least two people from Mughal Qala on Wednesday -- a father and his 10-year-old son who had returned to get their belongings, said resident Ali Baht.

The U.S. operations have sparked resentment among some villagers, who fear that civilians -- including wives and children of fighters -- were being killed. Resentment is also high in Surmad, because U.S.-led forces detained the police chief before the offensive began on suspicion of being a Taliban sympathizer.

Storm clouds moved in low over the region in the afternoon and sandstorms whipped up, indicating snow in the mountains. Three Chinook helicopters flew into the Shah-e-Kot area on supply missions under low cloud cover, but the worsening weather could slow further air and ground action.

''There's obviously visibility concerns, but in those types of operations they're prepared to deal with it,'' said Sgt. Major Richard Czizik of the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

Combat troops are trained to fight in any conditions, but ''obviously you've got discomfort issues,'' he said.

Front-line commander Abdul Matin Hasankhiel said the battle to break al-Qaida was taking longer than expected because of the difficult terrain and harsh conditions.

''These are very high mountains and former mujahedeen bases that the Russians couldn't defeat -- even with their heaviest bombing and best soldiers,'' he said, referring to the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the Afghan Defense Ministry dispensed intelligence-gathering experts from northern Afghanistan to investigate reports that al-Qaida sympathizers had reinforced the militants' ranks in recent days, intelligence officials said in Gardez.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the extra forces were arriving in small groups from Gardez, Ghazni, Khost and Surmad -- as well as a few coming across the border from Pakistan.

Hasankhiel said some sympathizers had managed to cross the Pakistani border Saturday and Sunday to reach the Taliban and al-Qaida mountain hideouts. But he said the paths had since been blocked by coalition forces.

''This is the heart of al-Qaida and the Taliban and when this is finished al-Qaida will be finished in Afghanistan,'' he said.

Hafeezullah, of the Surmad town council, said men from the Surmand district may have gone to battle as well to help Saif Rahman, the Taliban commander heading the troops in the mountains.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. forces, has said there was no sign of dug-in al-Qaida and Taliban fighters trying to flee the region -- which commanders say they have encircled.

However, as recently as Tuesday night, Taliban holdouts brought the bodies of at least two fighters from Shah-e-Kot to the village of Surmad for burial, said shopkeeper Abdullah Jan.

When asked how the Taliban could sneak by the allied forces blocking the mountain paths, he said: ''There are hundreds of smuggler routes,'' across the rugged terrain.



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