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thedrifter
01-30-03, 08:36 AM
CBSNews
January 29, 2003

American forces were carefully combing through a vast cave network on a steep mountain slope Wednesday after the fiercest battle in Afghanistan in nearly a year, the U.S. military said. Two men detained in the fighting were being questioned.

The fighting had died down by Wednesday morning, but the flare-up has served as a stark reminder that the war in Afghanistan is not over, even as the possibility of a new conflict looms in Iraq.



Hundreds of U.S. and coalition ground forces were in the area Wednesday, and an array of sophisticated air weaponry was called in to pummel the mountainside with earth-shattering bombs. There were no reports of coalition casualties. U.S. and coalition troops had their hands full Wednesday searching through scores of caves found so far in the frigid southeastern mountain area, said Col. Roger King, a spokesman for the U.S. military at Bagram Air Base.

"At least 160 caves have been counted so far, quite possibly more than that," King said. "The search will be conducted in a deliberate manner to try to ensure that we don't miss anything."

King said soldiers had gone through 30 caves so far. They have detained two enemy fighters and found 107mm rockets and other weapons. The military had estimated on Tuesday that about 80 fighters were holed up in the mountain, but on Wednesday said the figure could be significantly lower. The earlier number was based on the interrogation of a man detained after a firefight near the southeastern town of Spinboldak, who led Americans to the mountain site, about 15 miles to the north.

"We never had eyes on anywhere near that many (enemy fighters). The most that we ever saw at any one time was approximately 15 to 18, and most of those we believe didn't escape," King said. The military has said it killed 18 enemy fighters. "There were probably others in the area, so there is the potential for more people to be there."

King said the military believes the men were followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a renegade warlord who has allegedly linked his forces with remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda.

"The man who was detained talked about a link to Hezb-e-Islami, which is Hekmatyar's military group. We had other intelligence that I cannot go into that also indicated the involvement of this group," King said.

A former high-ranking Taliban official, Obeidullah, told The Associated Press by phone on Tuesday that the fighting was being led by two ex-Taliban Hafiz Abdul Rahim, the regime's former chief of the border security, and Sirajuddin, former district chief of Shindand in western Afghanistan. Many Afghans use only one name.

Even if the number of rebels turns out to be smaller than initial estimates, the military says it was the largest concentration of enemy combatants encountered since Operation Anaconda, a fierce eight-day battle in March in a different area of southeastern Afghanistan, about 250 miles northeast of the current fighting.

King said coalition forces had not been fired on since late Tuesday night.

The battle was a chilling indication of the continued challenges facing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Many worry a united front between Hekmatyar, the Taliban and al Qaeda could mean trouble for American forces. There have been reports that the rebel warlord is training suicide squads to target American forces.

King said military operations in Afghanistan would not be affected by a possible war with Iraq, and that there was no conflict over the need for warplanes and other fighter aircraft

"We've been assured that we will have adequate air resources to conduct our mission," he said.

The U.S.-led forces received aerial support from American B-1 bombers, which dropped 19 2,000-pound bombs. F-16 fighters dropped a pair of 500-pound bombs, while AC-130 gunships and Apache AH-64 helicopters strafed enemy positions with rocket and cannon fire, King said.

The fighting was triggered on Monday by a small shootout pitting armed attackers against U.S. Special Forces and their Afghan government allies who were working to clear a mud-walled compound. One attacker was killed, one injured and one detained. The detained suspect told interrogators that a large group of armed men had massed in mountains nearby.

http://www.military.com/pics/FL_caves_013003.jpg

Sempers,

Roger