Afghan troops and US bombers yesterday attacked hundreds of die-hard al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters holed up in mountains in east Afghanistan in the heaviest reported fighting for weeks in the country.
Residents said the fighting was taking place about 30km from Gardez, capital of Paktia province, where the Pentagon says it has intelligence reports that pockets of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and followers of deposed Taliban leader Mullah Omar are seeking to regroup.
"I can confirm that operations are ongoing in eastern Afghanistan," US military spokesman Major A.C. Roper told a news briefing in the southern city of Kandahar.
Roper declined to give further details of the operation or comment on reports that a large number of US troops had been moved from Kandahar air base to Bagram air base, north of Kabul.
There was no indication that bin Laden and Mullah Omar, both of whom Afghan officials say are still alive and on the run, were near the scene of the latest fighting.
Gardez, about 150km south of Kabul towards the Pakistan border, is often mentioned as a likely hideout for the two leaders.
"There has been heavy US bombing since last night and it is still going on today," Kamal Wazir, a spokesman for the province's key warlord and former governor Padshah Khan Zadran, said.
"We started a ground attack by 600 of our fighters on the area at 2am this morning. There are 50 or 60 American advisers with us," Wazir said. "The Taliban and al-Qaeda men are fighting back by firing rockets and heavy weapons."
"The fighting is around the mountain village of Shahi Ko in Arma district."
More than 500 Arabs and other al-Qaeda fighters along with their families are holed up in the area of Paktia province, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported.
Top Pentagon officials said on Friday the US military had been watching the area for a long period after deposing Afghanistan's Taliban leadership and sending remnants of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda guerrillas, blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on the US, into hiding in the rugged country.
"For some time now, coalition and Afghan forces have been conducting operations in eastern Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda and Taliban groups that have been identified in the area," Roper said.
"We are moving methodically to identify those al-Qaeda and Taliban to achieve that goal."
National Public Radio reported in the US from Afghanistan this week that US special forces troops had begun training two 500-man forces of Afghans to press a new hunt for Taliban and al-Qaeda in the area's villages and mountainsides.
Gardez was the scene of deadly clashes between rival militias last month.
Some 50 people were killed in the most serious fighting since the new interim government took office last December.
US bombing raids have petered out following the war to oust the Taliban and following claims that it killed anti-Taliban fighters in some raids after being misled by rival factions.