Britain has sent 100 SAS soldiers to Afghanistan and the Americans have asked it to send hundreds more elite troops to support an intensified push to capture Osama bin Laden, defence sources said yesterday.
The SAS force was seen passing through Bagram air base, north of Kabul.
An official at the base, the headquarters of allied special forces in Afghanistan, said it was on its way to the mountainous border with Pakistan to take part in Operation Mountain Storm against al-Qa’eda and Taliban militants.
Defence chiefs are considering the request to send paratroops or commandos to reinforce the American and British special forces hunting bin Laden, the head of al-Qa’eda, and his lieutenants, the defence sources said.
President George W Bush has launched an all-out attempt to capture him by May, partly motivated by a desire to ensure that the election campaign is not dominated by the failure to avenge September 11.
He said yesterday that there could be “no neutral ground” in the war on terrorism. He urged the international community to forget differences over the war in Iraq and unite against terrorism.
News of the British deployment was given as 7,000 Pakistani troops on the other side of the border launched a fresh offensive to close in on a suspected senior al-Qa’eda leader, reported to be Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden’s deputy. They were backed by helicopter gunships and US intelligence teams.
Major-Gen Shaukat Sultan, of the Pakistan army, said that as many as 400 militants could be holed up in a cluster of tribal villages around Wana, the capital of the South Waziristan province, and he intended to capture them “dead or alive”.
Both sides used heavy artillery and some reports suggested that 30,000 civilians had fled the area.
American reconnaissance aircraft, including Predator unmanned craft and U2 spy planes, have been helping Pakistani troops.
British intelligence officials were unable to confirm that Zawahri was among the trapped al-Qa’eda fighters.
“It certainly looks as if there is someone important there,” one said. “But no one knows for sure who it is.”
America has offered a $25 million reward for information leading to the capture of Zawahri, who is regarded as the architect of the al-Qa’eda terrorist ideology. This week Congress doubled the award for bin Laden to $50 million.
The American and British special forces teams, part of Task Force 121 that captured Saddam Hussein, are deployed along the Afghan side of the border.
Their task is to root out militants and to capture those fleeing the Pakistani operation.
They are backed by American and Afghan infantry. Gen Atiqullah Ludin, a senior Afghan commander, said the US and Afghan troops were enforcing tight security.
“Al-Qa’eda cannot escape or enter Afghan soil,” he said.
Other Afghan commanders said that a major offensive in the south of the country had resulted in the capture of a number of “semi-senior” terrorist leaders. “In recent days, there have been arrests,” one said.
“Some of the arrests have included semi-senior leadership within the terrorist elements on the Afghan side, possibly with strong links to al-Qa’eda.”
It was unclear whether the terrorists were caught while fleeing the fighting in Pakistan. But a spokesman for the American forces who have poured into the region as part of Mountain Storm played down the seniority of those captured, suggesting that they were middle-ranking members of the Taliban.
Last night, in perhaps the first concrete sign that the Taliban were feeling the pressure of the offensive, they issued a defiant statement on the Arabic television station Al Jazeera.
“We will carry out more attacks against international coalition forces if they continue to chase us,” a spokesman said – although the militants later denied making any threat.
The Ministry of Defence said it had no information on any reinforcements for Afghanistan.
The Army is already under great pressure. It has nearly 9,000 troops deployed in Iraq and is reinforcing its presence in Kosovo to try to put an end to the renewed fighting between Serbs and ethnic Albanians.