U.S. airstrikes target Taliban in Afghanistan

Rebel leaders survive assault, fleeing across the border to Pakistan


SPINBALDAK, Afghanistan - Apaches, Harriers, A-10 Thunderbolts and AC-130 gun ships unleashed a barrage of firepower against a rebel camp in southeastern Afghanistan yesterday, a U.S. military spokesman said, in one of the heaviest nights of bombing in months in Afghanistan.

The target was a group of 30 to 40 Taliban thought to be behind a string of attacks on government border posts in recent weeks.

Despite the 35,000 pounds of ordnance dropped on the area and hundreds of Afghan soldiers surrounding them, the rebel leaders broke out and made a run for the border with Pakistan, said Gen. Abdul Razzaq, the Afghan military chief of the border region. Eleven militants were captured and one was killed, but the rest got away, he said.

The battle, the latest in a series of clashes in recent weeks in which U.S. Special Forces soldiers have called in airstrikes, was a stark reminder that the fighting is not over here, a year and a half after American forces first moved against the Taliban and al-Qaida in October 2001.

The 8,500 American troops here - and several thousand more coalition troops - are now dealing with a classic guerrilla war, in which coalitions forces have to chase elusive fighters who launch attacks and then zip away into villages or across the border into Pakistan.

The Taliban fighters have regrouped, and this spring they launched a concerted campaign of hit-and-run attacks on U.S. and Afghan military targets in the border areas of the south and southeast of the country, Afghan and foreign military officials say. There is increasing evidence that the fighters have joined with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a longtime mujahedeen leader who is opposed to the government of President Hamid Karzai and who has both the funds and the organization to launch a campaign to destabilize the government.

In southern Afghanistan, despite aggressive operations by the U.S. military, there is a sense that things are starting to unravel, one U.N. Nations official said. Besides attacks on military targets, bombs, grenades and remote-controlled mines have been set on the roads, threatening ordinary civilians.

"The people are thinking the situation will get worse," said Wali Dad, 51, the local education chief and principal of Spinbaldak's main school. "The people of Afghanistan want peace, but here, unfortunately, they are disappointed. We have leaflets being left threatening violence and, now, fighting during the day."

For foreign aid workers in Kandahar, the culmination of the increasing violence was the execution of a Red Cross water engineer, Ricardo Munguia, last Thursday by a group of former Taliban members. The attack has caused all aid agencies to suspend travel in the area and many to evacuate their expatriate staff members. Development assistance to the south is likely to be affected over the coming months.

Threatening leaflets from different groups have been distributed in bazaars and schools at night. The local police chief, Lt. Col. Muhammad Arif, pulled the most recent one found in Spinbaldak's main shopping street from a drawer of his desk.

Under the heading "The Taliban's Emirate," it issues a "last warning" to Afghans to keep away from Americans and not work for them, "because our target is the Americans."

"If they do not stop helping the Americans, we will slit their throats, we will throw bombs at them and shoot them, especially those who work as spies," it said. "If they do not stop, their punishment will be very very difficult and we will blow up their houses."

The threat has already been carried out on several occasions in the last two weeks. Three Afghan soldiers guarding a border post north of Spinbaldak had their throats slit when gunmen attacked their post on March 19. Three more were shot as they slept in their guard post at Wata, on the main road between Spinbaldak and Kandahar two days later.

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