Allied search for al-Qaida, Taliban fighters continues

Operation winds down

signs show foes were professional soldiers

March 18, 2002|By John Daniszewski | John Daniszewski,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Five hundred U.S. and Canadian troops remained in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan yesterday, looking for caves that might still be hiding Taliban or al-Qaida fighters, as the military said its 16-day operation in the area was winding down.

Against a background of giant Chinook helicopter rotors stirring up the dust of this air base north of Kabul, soldiers back from days of searching for armed extremists in the Shah-e-Kot valley said they had successfully flushed out and killed at least five enemy fighters Thursday and Friday.

They also said that more caves and firing positions were being found that had been used by al-Qaida and the Taliban and that the evidence indicated that their foes were experienced, well-armed professional soldiers.

Operation Anaconda, the largest battle of the war in Afghanistan, was proclaimed an unqualified success by the military even though fewer-than-expected bodies of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have been found in the Shah-e-Kot area and there is a strong suspicion among America's Afghan allies that many of the terrorists managed to escape.

"We have destroyed their command and control. We have destroyed their caches [of weapons]. We have killed hundreds of the al-Qaida terrorists who now will not be around to kill innocent men, women and children," said Army Maj. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division, briefing reporters here.

And even though the operation was winding down, he emphasized, "The hunt continues."

Hilferty said U.S. and Canadian troops were on high ground and U.S.-friendly Afghan troops were on the floor of the valley, which until last week was the largest known stronghold for Taliban and al-Qaida diehards in Afghanistan. About 20 caves had been uncovered, he said.

Even though the U.S. forces and their Afghan allies had declared the valley taken Wednesday, several small groups of al-Qaida fighters were discovered after they came out of hiding.

Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division said they had killed at least one Taliban member Thursday and that, before dawn Friday, four Taliban were spotted and killed in a firefight with Afghans allied with the United States.

Canadian Pvt. Shane Scofield of Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, said his company had scoured parts of the mountains Thursday and Friday. On seeing an enemy cave, he said, the soldiers would fire a shoulder-launched rocket- propelled grenade round to kill anyone inside and to detonate any mines or booby traps. After looking around for sensitive intelligence materials, they would use C-4 explosive charges to block the cave's entrance.

Although they did not see any enemy troops, Scofield said, "The possibility that some were buried alive is high. There could be hundreds buried in there. There is just no way of knowing."

"It felt good to be out there doing a job," said Cpl. Landon Perry, another Canadian, who had emblazoned his cap with the letters F.A.T. -- Fight Against Terrorism.

John Daniszewski writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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