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Fighting continues to oust Taliban

Thursday, April 3, 2003

SPINBOLDAK, Afghanistan -- Two dozen U.S. special forces troops and hundreds of their Afghan allies swooped in on a border village Wednesday to drive out resurgent Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan.

Under fierce attack, the Taliban fled into nearby mountains where they were pummeled by U.S. aircraft.

It was the latest assault on rebel forces, who are regrouping after a U.S. coalition drove them from power 18 months ago.

At least eight Afghan soldiers and as many Taliban fighters were wounded. Six Taliban were captured and arrested, but another 60 were entrenched in the rugged Tor Ghar mountain range.

Air support arrived from Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, about six hours after the battle started.

By then, 45 special forces soldiers and about 250 Afghan soldiers drove the Taliban into the mountains from the village of Sikai Lashki, 25 miles north of Spinboldak, the gateway to Afghanistan on the border with Pakistan.

"We're still fighting. Our soldiers are hitting them and the American soldiers with us are calling in the air strikes," Khan Mohammed, the 2nd Corps commander in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, said as night fell over the stark landscape.

The U.S. military in Bagram, north of the Afghan capital of Kabul, said in a statement that U.S. servicemen "observing" the operation called in air support.

"Special Forces called for close air support," the military said.

In the first assault, two A-10 fighter jets fired seven white phosphorous rockets and 520 30 mm rounds. Two Apache helicopters followed, firing 130 30 mm rounds and 67 other rockets, it said.

Evidence is mounting in the southern regions of Afghanistan that the Taliban is reorganizing and has found an ally in rebel commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, labeled a terrorist and hunted by U.S. troops.

"Six months ago their attacks were sporadic. But today there is a new organization to the Taliban," Mohammed said at the sprawling compound where Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar once lived.

"They have found places and opened fronts. They are better organized and are slowly, slowly getting larger and better organized."

In the last two weeks in southern Afghanistan, a Red Cross worker was waylaid and murdered, and two U.S. servicemen were killed in an ambush on their convoy.

Khalid Pashtoon, a spokesman for the Kandahar governor, told The Associated Press that the Red Cross worker, Ricardo Munguia of El Salvador, was shot 20 times and the vehicles in his convoy were torched. The International Committee of the Red Cross ordered its workers not to travel until further notice.

"This is their aim, to frighten international aid workers away from southern Afghanistan so that the reconstruction cannot go ahead and the government is destabilized," Mohammed said.

He accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban's reorganization and of harboring its key leaders. He was not alone.

In Spinboldak, Khalid Khan, the town's director of foreign affairs, said the Taliban leaders and their commanders have found safe havens "in hundreds of homes in Quetta," the capital of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.

Khan said the support for fleeing Taliban is coming from Pakistan's militant Muslim groups. But Mohammed said it also is coming from the Pakistan government -- a key ally of the U.S.-led coalition's war on terror in Afghanistan.

"Without state support these groups couldn't operate," Mohammed said.

Pakistan denies helping militant groups, yet leaders have been freed from house arrest and are urging the faithful in Pakistan mosques to wage jihad against the United States.

A former Taliban commander hiding in Ghazni province earlier told the AP he stayed with Harakat-ul Mujahedeen fighters in Quetta last year while in Pakistan. He refused to say what he was doing in Pakistan.

The latest battle in the Tor Ghar Mountains is not far from the border with Pakistan and its semiautonomous tribal belt. It is in that region that U.S. and European intelligence sources say Taliban fleeing the U.S. coalition in Afghanistan have found refuge.

The Taliban's reorganization has provincial commanders overseeing operations. In the south and southeast, the reorganization and military operations are being managed by former Interior Minister Abdul Razzak, former Kandahar corps commander Mohammed Usmani and key commanders Mohammed Dadullah and Mullah Brather.

"We know these people, we know their tribes. We know they are in charge here," Mohammed said.


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