U.S., allies in Afghanistan kill 18 militants in battle

American troops search caves for fighters suspected of terror link

January 29, 2003|By Vanessa Gezari | Vanessa Gezari,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - U.S. troops were scouring a network of mountain caves in search of about 80 suspected Taliban and al-Qaida allies after the fiercest battle in Afghanistan since Operation Anaconda last spring, military officials said yesterday.

At least 18 militants were killed, a U.S. military spokesman said, while coalition forces suffered no casualties.

U.S. officials identified the fighters as loyal to Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who opposes the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and whose forces have been reported regrouping along the Pakistani border.

"We do our operations in the hopes of catching the enemy in a position where we can have maximum effect on him while he has minimal effect on us," said Col. Roger King, a U.S. military spokesman. "It seems that so far, that's what we've got here."

The battle, which started Monday, ended by yesterday evening, and coalition forces were searching the caves where the rebel forces had been hiding, said Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. A weapons cache was found at the site, Lapan said.

The fighting was triggered by a shootout in Spin Boldak, a trading town on the Afghan-Pakistani border.

U.S. Special Forces soldiers and Afghan militia were searching a mud-walled compound when they came under attack from three men, officials said. The Americans returned fire, killing one man, wounding another and detaining the third.

The detainee identified himself as a member of Hezb-e-Islami - Hekmatyar's military arm - and told the U.S. and Afghan soldiers that 80 more armed men were hiding out near Adi Ghar Mountain a few miles to the north.

U.S. soldiers called in Apache attack helicopters, which flew over the area near Adi Ghar and were fired on by about 18 men standing on the ridges with rifles, light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, King said.

A unit of the Army's 82nd Airborne division followed the Apaches and began cutting off escape routes for the militants.

During the next 12 hours, American B-1 bombers dropped 19 one-ton bombs. F-16s belonging to European coalition partners dropped two 500-pound bombs. At least some of the F-16s were Norwegian, marking the first time since World War II that Norway has carried out air strikes in combat, Norwegian officials said.

Between 300 and 350 U.S. and Afghan militia forces took part in the battle. Late yesterday afternoon, U.S. troops were still on the ground in the area, trying to "weed out" the remaining rebels, some of whom were sheltering in caves, King said.

"There's a lot of ground to cover; it's rough terrain. We know there are some caves, and there may be more that we don't know about," King said. "So it could take a considerable period of time."

Gen. Akram, Kandahar's security commander (who is known by that single name), said coalition and Afghan forces had arrested the brother of the militants' commander, Hafez Abdul Rahim.

He said the militants likely were linked to al-Qaida or Hezb-e-Islami.

The mountainous battlefield is 13 miles from the Pakistani border. The terrain is steep, rocky and remote, far from villages where civilians could get caught in the crossfire, King said.

Although military officials said the fighters appeared to be Afghan, they added that because of the area's proximity to the border, there was a "distinct possibility" that some could have come from elsewhere.

Operation Anaconda, conducted in the Shah-e-kot Mountains of eastern Afghanistan, was the largest ground operation of the war.

Its goal was to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters in a region of southeastern Afghanistan about 150 miles north of where yesterday's battle occurred. It involved more than 2,000 U.S. and coalition troops. Seven Americans died.

Vanessa Gezari writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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