U.S. starts new Afghanistan military operation

Move not aimed to catch bin Laden, officials say


KHOST, Afghanistan - American military officials announced yesterday that they had started a new military operation against fighters for al-Qaida and the Taliban in eastern and southern Afghanistan.

But they played down the significance of the step, saying it was not a sweeping "spring offensive" organized to capture the fugitive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for American-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in a telephone interview that the operation had begun March 7 and that it involved no additional American forces. He said that there were no plans for a large spring offensive and that the new operation would involve previously used tactics such as increased raids, patrols, village searches and checkpoints.

"It's just the next in a long line of operations," he said. "It's the next in the line."

But defense officials in Washington have said in recent weeks that American forces are adopting new tactics in Afghanistan as spring weather approaches. Capturing bin Laden is believed to be an election-year priority for the Bush administration. The al-Qaida leader is thought to be hiding along the mountainous Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Officials in Washington have also said that elements of Task Force 121, a team of CIA operatives and Special Operations soldiers involved in the capture of Saddam Hussein, have been moved to Afghanistan.

At the same time, American troops who carried out short, targeted raids in the past are now spending days at a time living in remote mountainous areas along the border, according to military officials. American units have also been assigned responsibility for specific geographic areas and villages.

Military officials have said the new tactics have generated a sharp increase in the information that Afghans are giving to American forces. They also say they expect an increase in al-Qaida and Taliban activity as the weather warms and as an Afghan national election, scheduled for June, approaches.

Hilferty said the new operation would be carried out across the country's east, south and southeast.

In an earlier news conference in Kabul, he said the previous operation had involved 143 raids carried out over two months. American forces killed 22 "enemy combatants," suffered no deaths and collected more than 10,000 rockets, mortar shells, rocket propelled grenades and mines. He did not give the number of Americans wounded.

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