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Afghanistan: Assault At Gardez Is Largest U.S. Ground Operation

Kabul, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. military officials in Kabul yesterday confirmed that the offensive launched against suspected Al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains of southeastern Afghanistan is the largest U.S.-led ground assault of Operation Enduring Freedom.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Willard Moore, a liaison officer who coordinates the work of American forces with the British-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, told RFE/RL yesterday that the offensive is aimed at destroying remaining pockets of Al-Qaeda resistance.

The fighting is centering on the Shah-i-Kot mountain range to the south of Gardez.

Moore said U.S. forces hope that several senior members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network will be located. But he said there is no information indicating that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is in the area.

U.S. special forces, infantry from the 10th U.S. Mountain Division, and troops from the 101st Airborne Division, as well as some 1,500 Afghan fighters, are involved in the assault. All of the U.S. forces were sent to the area from their base at Kandahar. Some Canadian troops also are involved in the offensive.

Moore said the Afghan forces that are aiding the U.S. troops include members of at least one Northern Alliance faction. He said the U.S. military will work with whomever it can -- as long as they are not from Al-Qaeda -- in order to get into the remote mountain areas along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Our correspondent has confirmed that some 500 ethnic Pashtun troops loyal to the ousted governor of Paktia Province -- Padshah Khan Zadran -- are working with the U.S. forces.

The offensive began on 1 March with air strikes by B-52 bombers. According to the Pentagon, about 80 bombs were dropped on suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets on 1-2 March.

The bombing raids continued on 3 March with nearly a dozen confirmed strikes by noon. U.S. command says laser-guided "thermobaric" bombs were used for the first time. The bombs are capable of penetrating deep underground to reach hidden command bunkers or caves, where Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters could be hiding. The bombs are constructed to send a fireball into a cave and suck out the oxygen -- killing anyone inside.

Vapor trails from several B-52 bombers crossed the sky to the south of Kabul this afternoon as the U.S. bombers continued circling the area.

Moore said the ground assault was launched by the U.S.-led coalition forces at about 06:30 (Kabul time) on 2 March. The assault was called to a halt in the early afternoon in the face of strong resistance by fighters armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. After the U.S. and Afghan forces pulled back to their original positions, further air strikes by U.S. bombers were called in.

At least one U.S. soldier and two allied Afghan fighters were confirmed to have been killed on 2 March. Afghan fighters who are working with the U.S. say the American was killed when a truck he was driving was struck by a mortar shell. At least one other U.S. soldier has been injured.

[The U.S. Defense Department also confirmed today that a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down during fighting last night. Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the attack on the helicopter killed what she called "a small number" of U.S. troops and injured others. She said she does not know whether those who died were killed by the helicopter crash or by small arms fire.]

Lieutenant Colonel Moore said 15 Northern Alliance fighters seriously injured in fighting on 2 March have been transferred to a military hospital in Kabul.

Moore said it is not clear whether the suspected Al-Qaeda fighters in the Shah-i-Kot mountain range are Afghans, Pakistanis, or Arabs.

Authorities in Pakistan say they have sealed that border in coordination with the U.S.-led assault in order to prevent any Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters from escaping Afghanistan.