Afghan rebels fire rockets; U.S. troops sweep for Taliban

Saturday, March 22, 2003

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- U.S.-led troops shrugged off more than a dozen errant missile attacks by rebels and pressed on with a roundup of possible Taliban fugitives, capturing at least 13 suspects, Army and Afghan officials said Friday.

The missiles did not injure the troops, but the scattered attacks Thursday were the highest number of rockets fired on U.S. positions in Afghanistan in at least two months, Col. Roger King said.

The barrage of 107 mm rockets coincided with an intensified search through mountain caves and valley villages of southern Kandahar province by up to 1,000 U.S. troops tracking down Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives.

Afghan forces participating in the U.S.-led sweep had arrested 13 people by Friday evening on suspicion they were fugitives from the ousted Taliban regime, said Abdul Razzak Panjshiri, security chief in the nearby Spinboldak area. He said they also captured 12 assault rifles, time bombs and ammunition.

Interrogators were trying to determine the suspects' identities. Two people arrested Friday spoke only Arabic, indicating they may be al-Qaida members rather than Afghan Taliban, an Afghan official said on condition of anonymity.

Rebels in Afghanistan have vowed repeatedly to strike at U.S. forces in Afghanistan if Washington launched a military campaign against Saddam Hussein. But it was not clear who carried out the rocket attacks or whether they were in response to the U.S.-led assault on Iraq, King said.

Rebels hope the Iraq war will stir public anger at the United States.

King said it was a coincidence that the Afghan and Iraq campaigns came at the same time.

The missile attacks took place at bases more than 100 miles from where the U.S. soldiers were carrying out the raids with Afghan forces. King played down the strikes but acknowledged the attacks broke a period of relative calm.

"We had lots of rockets," King told reporters at Bagram Air Base. "If you go with the total number of rockets that were launched, it was probably the most in one evening in two months, or two and a half."

In months of rocket attacks by rebel fighters, no one from the multinational coalition fighting terror in Afghanistan has been killed and no bases have been hit, King said.

Most rebels do not have launchers that improve the aim of the rockets, he said.

"Rocket attacks are more harassment than anything," King said. "It's like lighting a bottle rocket and letting it go. ... It's not a sniper weapon."

The rebel activity was reminiscent of the "busy month" last November, when at least 53 attacks were directed against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, King said.

The colonel said attackers had fired 11 rockets at a U.S. base in the eastern town of Orgun-E, near the Pakistani border, in three separate assaults starting Thursday evening. None landed closer than 500 yards from the base.

Another rocket attack and small arms fire early Friday were aimed at a U.S. position in the central town of Deh Rahwood. An Afghan post on the border with Pakistan in southeastern Khost came under rocket and small arms fire before dawn.

There was no indication whether the Afghan border guards or the attackers were injured, King said.

U.S. forces responded to the Khost attack with mortars and gunfire. A-10 aircraft provided air support with rockets, bombs and 30 mm cannon fire.

The U.S.-led sweep, called Valiant Strike, was expected to continue for two to three days. About 600 soldiers on the ground were backed by Blackhawk, Chinook and Apache helicopters along with armored Humvee vehicles.

The assault was one of the biggest in Afghanistan since Operation Anaconda a year ago, the eight-day battle that pitted hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters against thousands of American and allied troops.

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