MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan (AP) Northern alliance troops aided by U.S. special forces fought a pitched battle in a sprawling mud-walled fortress for a second day yesterday with captured loyalists of Osama bin Laden. Five Americans were wounded by a stray U.S. bomb.
This morning, the rattle of machine-gun fire rang out, and billowing clouds of dust and smoke rose from inside the fortress after apparent mortar strikes. Earlier, an enormous blast shook windows in Mazar-e-Sharif, 10 miles away. Planes circled overhead. Sounds of fighting could be heard all night from the direction of the fortress.
U.S. Marines went into action in southern Afghanistan, sending helicopter gunships aloft as Navy F-14 Tomcat jets attacked an armored convoy. It was the Marines” first known action since establishing a foothold yesterday near the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Fifteen vehicles in the column were destroyed, Capt. David Romley told reporters.
President Bush warned Americans to be prepared for U.S. casualties. Speaking in Washington, he said the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan was “just the beginning” of the fight against terrorism, and he warned Iraq and North Korea there would be consequences for producing weapons of mass destruction.
In the north, prisoners captured by the alliance last weekend in the siege of Kunduz rained rocket-propelled grenades and mortars on alliance troops trying to suppress the uprising.
Hundreds of Pakistanis, Chechens, Arabs and other non-Afghans fighting with the Taliban were brought to the fortress here as part of the weekend surrender of Kunduz, the Islamic militia”s last stronghold in the north.
Once inside the fortress Sunday, the prisoners stormed the armory and were still resisting the next day despite U.S. airstrikes and attacks by alliance forces.
One CIA operative was missing in the uprising, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.
American special forces troops called in an airstrike but a U.S. JDAM smart bomb went astray, exploding near the Americans. Five U.S. soldiers suffered serious wounds and were evacuated to nearby Uzbekistan, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington. Their identities were not released.
Alliance officers said about 40 of their troops had died in the uprising along with hundreds of resisters. Alliance commanders said the holdouts, trapped in a tower, were running out of ammunition and wouldn”t last long.
“Those who are left over will be dead,” said Alim Razim, an aide to alliance Gen. Rashid Dostum. “None of them can escape.”
Since the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif on Nov. 9, Taliban control has collapsed in Kabul and most of the country.
The Taliban”s days in Kandahar appeared numbered with the arrival Sunday night of U.S. Marines, who seized an airstrip west of the city without resistance and established a forward base for operations against bin Laden and what was left of the Taliban leadership.
The Marines” commander, Gen. James Mattis, said more than 1,000 troops would be on the ground within 48 hours in striking distance of Kandahar, the last city under Taliban control.
In other developments:
n Britain took several thousand troops off 48-hour alert, citing an improving situation on the ground in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon also confirmed that four British soldiers had been injured in operations with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He said one of the soldiers had been wounded more seriously than the others, but declined to comment further. He said all were being treated in Britain.
n A Vatican delegation met with former Afghan king Mohammad Zaher Shah on the eve of talks to determine the war-ravaged country”s political future. Afghan faction representatives are to meet near Bonn today in hopes of forming a transitional administration and a security force to police Afghanistan now that the Taliban has all but collapsed.
n Helped by U.S. and northern alliance troops, 12 Russian transport planes arrived in Kabul carrying aid crews, President Vladimir Putin said. The Russian Foreign Ministry said experts arrived to defuse land mines on the road leading to a planned Russian aid center.