U.S. pounds enemy sites for 2nd day

Taliban, al-Qaida put up fierce fight against allied forces

`Fighting to the death'

American planes hit mountain holdouts with over 270 bombs

March 04, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For the second day, U.S. and allied forces attacked al-Qaida and Taliban positions in the mountainous region south of Gardez, an operation that yesterday and last night relied primarily on coalition bombers and attack aircraft.

Wave after wave of warplanes, from B-52s to carrier-based F/A-18 Hornets, pounded the snow-capped mountains where hundreds of al-Qaida terrorists and non-Afghan Taliban are making a fierce stand with small arms, mortars and artillery pieces.

After two days of fighting, the outnumbered enemy forces are showing strong resilience, lobbing mortar shells at U.S. and Afghan forces and damaging American attack helicopters screeching overhead.

In addition to the U.S. Army soldier previously reported killed, about two dozen Army troops have been wounded during the past two days, though none of the wounds are life-threatening, and some are superficial, officials said.

Even so, the U.S. casualty count is the highest for any operation in the five months of fighting. Six Americans were injured and airlifted out of the area, said a doctor at a hospital in Gardez, according to the Associated Press.

Marine Corps Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said the allied attacks over the past day were "primarily from the air." On Saturday, about 80 bombs targeted the mountain strongholds, and as of late yesterday that number had swelled to more than 270, Mills said.

Mills said the air attacks focused on vehicles, mortars, enemy troop locations, caves and anti-aircraft artillery.

"The fighting has been fairly intense," said one official, and Mills said al-Qaida and Taliban forces, hunkered down in caves in rugged mountains that rise to more than 11,000 feet, are "very ferocious and persistent."

"We're finding out once again they're fighting to the death," Mills said.

No major ground action was reported yesterday, but that may soon change. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters ferried supplies to U.S. and other troops in the hills, a local commander said, signaling preparations for a new round of ground fighting, the Associated Press reported from the area.

One U.S. Army soldier was killed Saturday, Pentagon officials said, although neither his name nor unit has been released, pending notification of next of kin. Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and U.S. Army Special Forces are taking part in the operation, which includes hundreds of Afghan troops. Three Afghans have been killed and more than a dozen wounded, officials said.

Afghan fighters recovering yesterday at the Gardez hospital described the operation to the Associated Press as two-pronged, with one group of Afghan troops and U.S. Special Forces launching a frontal attack on the mountains and a second attempting to ambush from the rear. U.S. officials have not disclosed the role of either the 101st Airborne or the Special Forces troops in the operation.

The Afghan government troops, under three local commanders, provided the bulk of the forces - more than 1,000 fighters, officials said. Hundreds of U.S. and allied ground troops are also involved. International aid workers and Afghan sources say al-Qaida and Taliban are hiding with the Taliban's former deputy foreign minister, Abdul Rehman Zahid, in the Kharwar district targeted yesterday, according to the Associated Press.

Neither the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, nor Osama bin Laden is believed to be in the area. Pentagon officials have said they are uncertain whether senior al-Qaida or Taliban are among those fighting.

During the two days of the operation, U.S. cargo planes dropped about 720,000 currency-sized leaflets in four locations around Gardez, military officials said. The leaflets picture an eagle with mountains in the background. In the local languages of Dari and Pashtu is written: "Partnership of nations has you under surveillance. Cease resistance or face destruction."

The allied offensive around Gardez, the capital of the Paktia province, is the biggest air-ground operation in the Afghan conflict and includes personnel from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, France and Norway, officials said.

Three U.S. Army Apache helicopters had been struck by enemy fire, officials said, although all were able to land safely. They were "damaged but not irreparably," said a senior defense official.

Pentagon officials said that ground and air operations are continuing around the clock and that they expect the allied attacks to last for several days.

Mills and other officials estimate there are hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the mountains, discounting estimates as high as 5,000.

Most of the bombs employed over the past two days are Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, which rely on satellite guidance to find their targets. JDAMs were used hundreds of times in the Kosovo campaign in 1999, their combat debut. Thousands have been dropped in Afghanistan.

The Gardez fight has also seen a "thermobaric" bomb used for the first time in combat.

The 2,000-pound bomb, which was field-tested in Nevada less than three months ago, is designed to destroy cave and tunnel complexes. It detonates in a withering combination of shock wave and heat, and is two or three times more powerful than conventional bombs.

The thermobaric bomb is dropped by an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle, which was joined in the attacks by B-52 and B-1 bombers as well as AC-130 Spectre gunships, low-flying planes bristling with heavy weaponry that can lay down a barrage of precise fire. One Green Beret termed the plane "the special operators' best friend."

In addition to the Navy's F/A-18 Hornets, F-14 Tomcats also took part in the attacks from carriers in the north Arabian Sea, officials said.

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