BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (AP) U.S.-led coalition troops have gained the upper hand after killing at least half the al-Qaida and Taliban forces holed up in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in the biggest joint offensive in the war, the U.S. commander said yesterday.
Several hundred more American troops were deployed in the rugged terrain of Paktia province bringing their number to more than 1,000 as were fresh forces from their Afghan allies. Working at altitudes sometimes about 10,000 feet, they engaged in continuous firefights with al-Qaida fighters and cleared several enemy caves.
“We”ve got confirmed kills in the hundreds,” Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck told a press conference yesterday at Bagram air base north of the capital Kabul. “We truly have the momentum at this point.”
Still, the Pentagon admitted resistance from the fighters holed up in the hills of the Shah-e-Kot mountain range was strong. Five Marine attack helicopters entered the fight Tuesday to bolster the aerial strike force after Army Apaches were damaged by intense fighting.
U.S. officials have said the coalition of troops fighting in Operation Anaconda number about 2,000. Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the five-month-old Afghan war, said 200 to 300 more American troops had been deployed in the battle zone in the past two days, in addition to 800 who were already there.
But Franks told reporters at the Pentagon that the new deployment was not due to stiffer-than-expected resistance and said there was “no surprise” at the size of the al-Qaida forces.
“We expected that they would put up a fierce fight and they have and they are,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters in Washington. He said the fighters were “very hardened elements of al-Qaida.” But he said the outcome was “reasonably assured”: that the fighters would surrender or be killed.
When the operation began Friday, 150 to 200 enemy fighters were believed to be hiding in the area, Hagenbeck said. But by Wednesday, as many as 600 to 700 al-Qaida and some Taliban troops had filtered into the territory, he said.
“Conservatively speaking right now, I”m convinced from the evidence I”ve seen that we”ve killed at least half of those enemy forces,” he said. “We own the dominant terrain in the area.”
In other developments:
n Anti-aircraft missiles left by the ousted Taliban militia exploded as t peacekeepers were trying to defuse them in the Afghan capital, Kabul, killing three German soldiers and two Danish soldiers.
n Paktia province”s intelligence unit offered a $4,000 reward for the capture of any al-Qaida warrior, passing leaflets in Gardez and making announcements from loudspeakers.
n Afghanistan”s main regional commanders gathered yesterday for meetings with interim leader Hamid Karzai and U.N. officials on security and forming a national army. Cooperation among them is considered important because Karzai”s interim government has little power outside the capital. Regional warlords control much of the land and it remains unclear if they will be willing to cede influence to the central authority.
n Allied Afghan commanders said they were bringing in new units into the Shah-e-Kot battle for a final push against the al-Qaida fugitives. “There are 5,000 soldiers collecting in Shah-e-Kot for a final offensive on the al-Qaida to finish them off,” said Commander Ismail Khan, who brought in extra soldiers from his base in Jaji, northeast of Paktia”s capital, Gardez.
U.S. officials returning from the front yesterday predicted the offensive would be wrapped up soon, thanks to increased firepower and progressing ground operations.
“I think really in a couple of days it will be over,” said Maj. Ignacio Perez of the 101st Airborne Division.
Hostile fire Monday brought down one Chinook helicopter and damaged another, killing seven U.S. troops _ the worst casualty toll in a single offensive operation of the 5-month-old war.
Infantry forces inching up the sheer mountain side had found a stash of weapons and documents in one cave hide-out and were clearing more.
Brig. Gen. John Rosa told reporters at the Pentagon that the cave-side trove included mortars, rocket-propelled grenade rounds, small arms. Elsewhere, U.S. troops found more weapons and ammunition, as well as foreign driver”s licenses and foreign passports, he said.