Fri, Mar 08, 2002 - Page 1 News List

US bolsters its efforts in Afghan war


Allied airstrikes intensified yesterday as the US rushed to try to wipe out al-Qaeda forces battling in the eastern Afghan mountains while the nation's former king denounced the US-led war on terrorism.

A US military spokesman said US-led forces had killed 100 al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters Wednesday alone. Major Bryan Hilfery, spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division, said ground fighting continued yesterday but he had no word on new casualties.

"We're continuing to bolster our efforts, and units are continuing to maneuver in fire today, clearing ridgelines, caves and pockets of al-Qaeda resistance," Hilfery said.

Zahir Shah, the former king, called the US-led war on terrorism in his homeland "stupid and unnecessary" in an interview published yesterday in the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Zahir, 87, did not expressly mention the US, but he did call for an immediate end to military operations inside Afghanistan.

"My people have always been fighting for liberty and democracy," said Zahir, who has lived in Rome since being toppled in 1973.

"Terrorism and al-Qaeda are foreign, non-Afghan phenomena," he said.

Zahir, who is Pashtun, said he was looking forward to his scheduled return to the country, but was sad at the thought he would see his country in ruins. He wanted to help bring about peace.Unconfirmed reports say Zahir is to be escorted home to Kabul on March 21 by interim premier Hamid Karzai.

US-led infantry units have cleared out several cave hide-outs and al-Qaeda compounds, including some where troops found AK-47 ammunition, medicine, night-vision devices and documents -- including a Saudi identification card.

Eight US and three Afghan troops have died since Operation Anaconda began March 1.

In Kabul, three international peacekeepers -- two Germans and three Danes were killed while trying to defuse a Soviet-era missile, the first fatal accident since the force, which is separate from the US military operation, was deployed to Kabul in December.

Throughout the morning yesterday, thunderous blasts from US B-52 bombers shook the mountains southwest of here. Dozens of US Army Apache attack, armed with 30 millimeter guns and Hellfire missiles, pounded targets in the narrow, craggy gorges.

The air bombardment, felt in Gardez, 45km from the targets, appeared heavier than in recent days as the US accelerated efforts to crack the al-Qaeda resistance.

Afghan commander Ismail Khan said a US special operations unit moved into the battle area Wednesday.

"There are 5,000 soldiers collecting in Shah-e-Kot for a final offensive on the al-Qaeda to finish them off," Khan said. "It will be the final push."

Throughout the night Wednesday, US transport helicopters shuttled between Bagram air base north of Kabul and the battle from to the south, bringing in fresh supplies of food, fuel and ammunition.

In Washington, General Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said the number of Americans in the operation by 200 to 300 over the past two days, for a total of roughly 1,100. They joined about US-backed 1,000 Afghan fighters and a small number of elite, special operations troops from six nations.

"I think the days ahead are going to continue to be dangerous days for our forces," Franks said in Washington. "But the alternative to taking such a risk is not acceptable."

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