Reuters on Thursday, April 03, 2003
SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan – U.S. warplanes have launched heavy air strikes in support of Afghan forces battling suspected Taliban fighters in the southwest of the country, Afghan and U.S. military officials said on Thursday.
The U.S. military in Afghanistan said U.S. planes and helicopters had dropped a total of 35,000 pounds of ordnance on suspected Taliban positions in the Tor Ghar mountain area of Kandahar province, northeast of the town of Spin Boldak.
The strikes from A-10, Harrier and B-1 aircraft as well as AC-130 gunships and Apache helicopters came after about 40 suspected Taliban fighters opened fire on a 12-strong U.S. special forces detachment observing an Afghan militia operation on Wednesday, military spokesman Colonel Roger King said.
Speaking at the U.S. headquarters at Bagram north of Kabul, King said there had been no U.S. casualties but an Afghan militiaman was stable after being shot in the abdomen.
King said he had no details of Taliban casualties and the operation was continuing. Afghan military commander Muhammad Abbas Khan said the strikes occurred about 16 miles northeast of Spin Boldak. He said heavy fighting was continuing in the Loi Karez area, which includes Tor Ghar, close to the Pakistan border.
He said the Taliban fighters had totaled about 160 and they had been surrounded by about 300 government troops.
Khan said 14 Taliban fighters had been arrested, six of them wounded. Witnesses coming from the area said the fighting had continued all night.
Afghan officials said two government soldiers had been killed and three wounded in fighting in the Loi Karez area on Wednesday when a patrol came under fire.
Afghan officials have expressed concern about an increase in Taliban activity since the start of the war in Iraq, which they say appears to have been orchestrated from Pakistani territory.
Kandahar province, where the fighting has taken place, was a powerbase of the hardline Islamic Taliban regime until it was ousted from power by intense U.S.-led bombing and attacks from opposition forces in late 2001.
Pakistan was the Taliban’s main backer before joining the U.S.-led war on terror after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Islamabad says it no longer supports the Taliban, but much of the group’s leadership melted away into border mountains or into Pakistan after its overthrow.
The U.S. military has been warning for weeks that “enemy” forces were trying to regroup and might launch attacks to coincide with the Iraq invasion.
Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali told a news conference in Kabul on Thursday there had been a pickup in Taliban activity with the onset of better spring weather, which could also be linked to the war in Iraq.
Jalali said Muslim extremists across the world could be providing financial support to the Taliban. He declined to name any organization or country that might be doing so, but stressed that the fighters were coming from Pakistan.
“Former Taliban and their al Qaeda associates are active across the border and are staging operations from across the border,” he said, adding: “Afghanistan wants good relations with Pakistan.”
Thousands of U.S.-led coalition troops are in Afghanistan pursuing remnants of the Taliban and the al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden blamed for the September 11 attacks.
Afghan authorities say Taliban members arrested in the past two weeks include former trade minister Mullah Abdul Razzaq. Jalali said others held included a former deputy education minister, Mawalvi Shahidkhel.
Elsewhere in Afghanistan, three suspected rockets landed near a U.S. airfield at Khost in the southeast of the country on Wednesday night, but caused no casualties or damage, King said.
He added that a deminer working for the Ronoco Demining Corp, a firm contracted by the U.S. military, had lost a foot in a blast near the Bagram headquarters on Wednesday. He said the man was in stable condition but gave no further details.