U.S. aircraft bomb, strafe al-Qaida, Taliban soldiers

Up to 20 fighters attacked while setting up mortars near allied base at Khowst


WASHINGTON - U.S. warplanes bombed a group of suspected al-Qaida and Taliban fighters yesterday as they were setting up mortars within striking distance of an airfield in eastern Afghanistan used by allied forces, military officials said.

Just before nightfall, the officials said, American reconnaissance aircraft detected 15 to 20 fighters digging four mortar pits several hundred yards from the airfield at Khowst.

The airfield is a hub for U.S. Special Operations forces and other coalition soldiers fighting pockets of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in the rugged mountains near the border with Pakistan.

Air Force A-10s moved in from Bagram Air Base, near Kabul, attacking with bombs and rockets, and strafing the fighters with 30 mm Gatling guns. A senior military official said the strike killed "a few" of the fighters and the others fled.

For several weeks, suspected al-Qaida and Taliban forces have harassed American-led troops based at Khowst, Kandahar and other bases with nighttime mortar and rocket attacks that have caused little damage and no casualties. But the assaults serve as a constant reminder that hostile fighters are nearby and are not giving up.

These tactics underscore how the large-scale battles of Tora Bora and the Shah-e-Kot Valley have given way to guerrilla-style warfare. American commanders say Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have dispersed into small groups to help avoid detection.

U.S. forces were lucky to catch the fighters before they could set up their artillery, military officials said. In previous attacks, the hostile forces have rigged simple timing devices to launch mortars or rockets long after they have fled the scene.

With the war in Afghanistan well into its eighth month, one of Washington's main allies in the fight announced yesterday it would pull out its forces this summer. In Ottawa, Canada's minister of defense, Arthur Eggleton, said the 850 troops in the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, would return home in late July or early August and would not be replaced.

Canadian officials said their commitment to fighting terrorism remained firm but that their relatively small army was stretched thin. Eggleton left open the possibility that Canadian forces might return to Afghanistan next spring, if needed.

Canada has the third-largest number of ground forces in Afghanistan, behind the United States and Britain, and American officials were quick to play down any suggestion that the allied commitment to the war was waning.

"What we try to do in this coalition is to cycle our forces in and out for the purpose of rearming, refitting and, in fact, resting," Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said at a news conference in Tampa, Fla., headquarters of his Central Command. "I don't think it would send any signal at all if Canada were to take a decision to rotate" its forces out.

Four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight others wounded last month when an American F-16 pilot who thought he was under attack mistakenly bombed the Canadians, who were conducting a live-fire training mission. Canadian and American officials said the bombing, the source of two inquiries, was not a reason that the forces were leaving.

Meanwhile yesterday in Washington, the House of Representatives voted to provide $1.3 billion in economic and military aid to Afghanistan after demanding that President Bush devise a strategy to establish law and order there.

Lawmakers of both parties said they feared that the U.S. military's success could be undermined if lawlessness persisted in Afghanistan.

The bill, to rebuild Afghanistan and combat the production of narcotics, was passed 390-22.

The money, to be made available over four years, would be used to create jobs, clear land mines, pay for education and health care, vaccinate children and revive the nation's agriculture.

"This recovery effort must be sustained in the months and years ahead," said the chief sponsor, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican and chairman of the Committee on International Relations. But, he emphasized, "the administration needs a coherent strategy."

The House approved an amendment offered by Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, that calls on the president to devise "a strategy for meeting the immediate and long-term security needs of Afghanistan." The president would have 45 days to send such a plan to Congress.

"Afghanistan is in grave danger of relapsing into the very conditions of violence and warlordism that created the Taliban and attracted al-Qaida to operate there," Lantos said. "Outside Kabul, Afghanistan continues to be a land where every thug with a rifle can set up an illegal checkpoint to extort money from travelers while the unarmed and outnumbered police cower in their makeshift headquarters."

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