Gardez, Afghanistan; 2 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military confirmed that it has launched air attacks on a mountainous area in eastern Afghanistan where it believes hundreds of Al-Qaeda and other Arab fighters are hiding. A U.S. military spokesman, A. C. Roper, told reporters in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar that the operations were ongoing. He gave no other details.
Afghan leaders in the eastern province of Paktia said U.S. jets began bombing an area southeast of the city of Gardez, which lies some 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Kabul, late on 1 March.
A spokesman for a key commander in the region, Padshah Khan Zadran, said that at least 600 Afghan militiamen have begun a ground attack aimed at rooting out the Al-Qaeda fighters. He said the Al-Qaeda fighters were returning fire with rockets and heavy weapons.
Local officials told Reuters that a delegation was sent into the mountainous region before the attacks were launched, but the Al-Qaeda fighters refused to surrender.
Meanwhile, reports from neighboring Pakistan have emerged that gunmen shot and killed seven Afghan tribal elders on their way home from talks in Jalalabad on the convening of a loya jirga, the grand council of tribal elders that should name a two-year transition government in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) said the seven elders were gunned down in Kunar province late on 28 February as they traveled to a feast in Pashad village, some 30 kilometers south of the provincial capital, Asadabad. There was no independent confirmation of the report, however.
AIP said the elders had talks in Jalalabad with members of a UN-backed commission helping to establish a new government in Afghanistan. The commission's task is to convene a loya jirga in June in order set up a transitional government after the term of the present interim administration ends.
An international peacekeeping representative in Kabul has meanwhile warned that it could take years to creat a multi-ethnic, Afghan national army. The British general in charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General John McColl, made the comments on 2 March, just two days before about 200 Afghan commanders are scheduled to begin talks in Kabul on the new army.
A Defense Ministry official, Mira Jan, said the talks will be attended by Ismail Khan, the governor of the western province of Herat, and Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostam.
About 500 soldiers have already arrived at barracks outside of Kabul to begin ISAF training for a national guard that is to serve as a model for the army.