Attrackers fire at U.S. base in Afghanistan, two injured

Thursday, February 14, 2002

Associated Press WriterKANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- Attackers who opened fire on the main American base in southern Afghanistan appeared well-organized and moved within 50 yards of U.S. positions, an Army spokesman said Thursday.

Two U.S. soldiers were slightly wounded in the firefight, which broke out Wednesday night at the Kandahar airport base, the U.S. military said. U.S. forces fought back with machine guns and scrambled helicopter gunships to drive off the attackers.

One soldier cut his little finger and another was grazed on the neck by a bullet, said Maj. Ralph Mills, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Florida. Both were back on duty Thursday.

Capt. Tony Rivers said the attackers came within 50 yards of the U.S. defense lines "and appeared well organized."

The base houses more than 4,100 troops and al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners, the U.S. military said. U.S. forces fought back with machine guns and scrambled helicopter gunships to drive off the attackers.

Elsewhere, a U.S. soldier was killed Wednesday in an accident at another airfield. A CH-47 helicopter which developed mechanical problems in-flight Wednesday also made a hard landing on its return to Kandahar, slightly injuring a soldier on his face and leg, Army spokesman Maj. A.C. Roper said Thursday.

In other developments:

--Residents of an eastern Afghan provincial capital where factional fighting killed at least 61 people last month cheered and threw flowers Thursday to welcome their new governor, a veteran administrator named to replace a warlord who attacked the town after local leaders refused to accept him as governor.

The town council of Gardez said it would accept 77-year-old Taj Mohammad Wardak as the new governor of surrounding Paktia province. But supporters of warlord Bacha Khan, whose forces besieged Gardez for two days in January to press his claim to the governorship, said the job was still rightfully his.

Khan's side has threatened to continue fighting. But to do so would amount to a direct challenge to the new Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, which announced Wardak's appointment Wednesday.

--Former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has opposed the presence of foreign security forces in Afghanistan, is ready to leave Iran if his departure would help Tehran ease tensions with the United States, his party said in a statement.

Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami party said he would return to Afghanistan if he leaves Iran. The statement was issued two days after Iranian authorities closed the party's offices in an apparent effort to defuse U.S. criticism that Iran is trying to destabilize the new Afghan government. Hekmatyar fled to Iran after the Taliban seized Kabul in 1996.

--The United Nations health agency plans to survey levels of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases in Afghanistan and encourage testing of donated blood. Results will be used to create a national plan to control the disease. Just 10 cases of HIV/AIDS inside Afghanistan have been reported to the World Health Organization.

--Purdue University in Indiana will help Afghanistan's war-ravaged Kabul University re-establish engineering, agriculture and technology programs and select textbooks, under an agreement signed with the new Afghan education minister, Sherief A. Fayez.

The U.S. soldier killed Wednesday at Bagram air base 40 miles north of Kabul, the capital, died of injuries caused when heavy equipment he was working on fell on him, said Mills, the Central Command spokesman.

It was the latest in a growing catalogue of accidents that have proved far deadlier for U.S. forces than enemy fire in the four-month U.S.-led campaign.

So far, 20 U.S. soldiers have been killed, just one from hostile fire, said Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. Eleven died in aircraft accidents, three in U.S. bombing and five in other accidents. A CIA agent also was killed in a prison uprising near Mazar-e-Sharif. Of 79 soldiers injured, 37 were hurt in aircraft accidents, Lapan said.

During Wednesday's attack at Kandahar, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division came under fire from the north and west of the airfield and shot back. Apache gunships took to the air to try to determine who the attackers were.

"The perimeter was never in danger of being breached," Roper said. U.S. soldiers detained seven people who later turned out to be part of a U.S.-backed Afghan security force that helps protect the airfield. They were released. The identity and number of attackers was not known.

The base has come under fire before. On Jan. 10, gunmen in arid scrub north of the runway opened fire as a C-17 transport plane took off with 20 detainees for a U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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