U.S. leads major fight in Afghan mountains

American is killed, several wounded in major assault

Attacks from ground, air

Up to 4,000 Taliban, al-Qaida believed to be holed up

March 03, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Hundreds of U.S. and Afghan troops, supported by American warplanes and attack helicopters, launched at dawn yesterday the largest allied ground offensive of the 5-month-old military campaign in Afghanistan, focusing on pockets of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters huddled in the rugged, snow-covered mountains outside the eastern city of Gardez.

One American and three Afghan government soldiers were killed in what officials said was fierce fighting. An unspecified number of U.S. and Afghan soldiers were wounded, said Navy Cmdr. Dave Culler, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. The names were not released, pending notification of family.

President Bush learned of the combat death of the American soldier from Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, while at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Western Maryland, a White House spokesman said. Yesterday's death was the second combat death for U.S. military forces in action in Afghanistan.

Afghan forces broke off the attack early in the afternoon and withdrew, possibly to allow U.S. bombers to soften up Taliban and al-Qaida positions overnight. Heavy bombers could be heard flying toward the area late yesterday, the Associated Press reported.

The operation signaled the first use of conventional American ground troops - elements of the 101st Airborne Division - in the Afghanistan conflict. They joined with U.S. special operations forces, whose small teams have been involved in the fighting since the beginning. The number of Americans involved in yesterday's action was not known.

Besides U.S. and Afghan forces, an unspecified number of troops from member nations of the international coalition are involved in the operation, which began about 6:30 a.m. local time yesterday (9 p.m. EST Friday) about 24 miles south of Gardez, capital of Paktia province.

Pentagon officials said U.S. warplanes and Apache attack helicopters from the 101st Airborne were supporting the operation. The 101st troops, who number about 2,000 in Afghanistan, have been patrolling and securing the area around Kandahar airport. Small numbers of them have replaced U.S. Marines in eastern Afghanistan.

The Central Command said in a release that the "main effort" of the Gardez fight involves forces led by three senior Afghan officers: Gen. Zia, Gen. Kamal Khan Zadran and Gen. Zakim Khan. Citing security concerns, officials would say only that hundreds of coalition soldiers were involved.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported yesterday that more than 1,000 Afghan government soldiers were massed for the battle in the mountainous Arma area south of Gardez.

"We haven't started the ground attack yet, but the al-Qaida fighters are firing mortars at us," a commander identified by AIP as Wazir Khan Zadran told the news service by satellite phone, adding that there were waves of U.S. airstrikes. "American bombing is still going on against the al-Qaida group that is present in the mountains."

The Afghan military official said he has 300 fighters under his command. "The Americans have already trained the people for the battle," he said. The AIP also reported that Zakim Khan has about 500 fighters.

Pentagon officials said U.S. carrier-based and land-based aircraft were taking part in the attacks, including B-52 bombers and the heavily armed AC-130 gunships, converted cargo planes equipped with howitzers and machine guns.

Being used for the first time is a bomb known as a "thermobaric" weapon, which sends shock waves and heat into confined spaces and was field tested only in December, said a Pentagon official. The bomb has two to three times the lethality of conventional high explosives, officials have said.

"It's a new explosive that is particularly designed for tunnels," Undersecretary of Defense Edward "Pete" Aldridge told reporters in December. "It's something that we clearly have a need for in Afghanistan."

The AIP quoted sources in Gardez as saying that more than 500 fighters of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network were concentrated in the vicinity of Arma, although the Associated Press quoted Afghan soldiers as saying as many as 4,000 al-Qaida and Taliban fighters may be hunkered down in the mountains.

Some al-Qaida men, including Arabs and nationals of other countries, were believed to be living there with their families, the AIP reported.

Pentagon officials said yesterday that they were uncertain whether any senior Taliban or al-Qaida leaders were in the Gardez area. The Pentagon said Friday that concentrations of al-Qaida and Taliban forces are around Gardez.

"There's hundreds of folks, and we don't know the makeup. But they're certainly not friendly," said Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We've observed. We've gathered intelligence. We've been tracking this for several months."

This latest battle reinforces the insistence of Pentagon officials that much fighting remains.

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