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Afghanistan: Battle Rages Between U.S. Troops, Renegade Fighters

A battle has been raging in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar between U.S.-led antiterrorism forces and a group of fighters thought to be aligned with renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister of the war-torn country.

Prague, 28 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Special Forces and their Afghan allies were locked in a battle today with a group of renegade fighters near a cave complex in the mountains of the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

U.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King said the battle involves the largest concentration of enemy fighters seen by U.S.-led antiterrorism-coalition forces in the country since the early stages of Operation Anaconda last March in southeastern Afghanistan.

King said at least 18 of the fighters were killed overnight and that there are no immediate reports of casualties among U.S. troops or their Afghan allies.

King did not specify whether the renegade fighters are former members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, but he did say that they are thought to be linked to renegade warlord and former Afghan Prime Minster Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. "Our intelligence leads us to believe that they are most closely aligned with [the] Hizb-e Islami movement, which is Hekmatyar's military arm. We've had reports over the last several months that [Hekmatyar] has been attempting to consolidate with remnants of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So they would all go under the heading of enemy forces -- anticoalition forces. But that's who we believe they are," King said.

King said the battle began as a skirmish yesterday north of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border at Spin Boldak. "A small group of U.S. Special Forces soldiers were clearing a compound with support from Afghan militia forces when they came under small-arms fire Monday at approximately 11 a.m., 13 kilometers north of Spin Boldak in Kandahar Province. The coalition forces returned fire, killing one, wounding one, and detaining a third man," King said.

King said the skirmish evolved into a full-scale battle after the captured man revealed the location of some 80 fighters who were concentrated nearby at a mountain called Adi Ghar. "The detainee, when questioned, informed the U.S. Special Forces that he had information relating to approximately 80 armed personnel located several kilometers [farther] north in the vicinity of Adi Ghar Mountain. The Special Forces called in Apache helicopters to attempt to verify this information they had just received. The [Apache helicopters] were fired on by ground forces near the mountain. The [Apache helicopters] returned fire, and U.S. Special Forces then requested a quick-reaction force, which was drawn from the 82nd Airborne Division," King said.

Another U.S. military spokesman, Major Robert Hepner, said some 200 U.S. Special Forces were engaged in the mountain battle early today and that more were being sent into the fight.

King suggested that many of the renegade fighters were killed by overnight air strikes called in by the ground troops. "The quick-reaction force was launched, and the enemy forces were located near a series of caves in the mountain. Close air support was also requested, and over the course of the next 12 to 14 hours, it was provided by U.S. Air Force B-1 bombers, coalition F-16s, and a United States Air Force AC-130 gunship during the hours of darkness. And this is in addition to the Apache helicopters," King said.

Reports suggest there is growing concern among U.S. military officials and their Afghan allies about the ability of hostile fighters to cross into Afghanistan from hideouts in the mountainous tribal regions of Pakistan.

General Khailbaz Sherzai, head of the Afghan Military Commission in Khost and commander of the Afghan 25th Regiment, told RFE/RL that he has made official complaints to Pakistan after militants crossed into southeastern Afghanistan last weekend. "Sunday night [26 January], armed forces attacked our border post [in the southeastern province of Khost]. We have a border post in the area. They attack with artillery. When we got the news, I ordered the border guards to defend and fight. Our people bravely defended and counterattacked the enemy, and they [the enemy] fled. In the same area, there is a Pakistani border post. They entered the post. I've asked Pakistan border guards not to allow enemies of Afghanistan to enter our territory and not to give them sanctuary. I asked them repeatedly. We want to live in harmony and friendship. Those people should be disarmed," Sherzai said.

General Tommy Franks, commander of antiterrorism-coalition forces in the region, met yesterday with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to discuss what state media in Islamabad described as "professional interests."

U.S. military sources declined to elaborate, saying only that Franks was in Pakistan on a "routine liaison visit" aimed at improving coordination between the U.S.-led coalition and Pakistan's armed forces.

Pakistan is an ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. But India and other countries have repeatedly accused Pakistan's intelligence service of sponsoring cross-border attacks by Islamic militants in order to further Islamabad's foreign-policy goals.

Relations between Pakistan and the United States were strained on 29 December last year when U.S. warplanes bombed a deserted religious school inside Pakistani territory following a clash between Afghan soldiers and Pakistani border guards.

Relations deteriorated further when U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell said that Pakistan should stop being a "platform for terrorism" and should prevent Islamic militants from crossing into Indian-administered Kashmir.