Afghan tanks, forces arrive for battle; weather slows enemy fi

Saturday, March 9, 2002

GARDEZ, Afghanistan -- Snow, clouds and high winds quelled fighting Friday, but the week-old battle to drive al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts from the rugged, icy mountains in eastern Afghanistan was expected to drag on for several more days as the enemy hunkered into hide-outs and refused to surrender.

The central government of interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai dispatched convoys of Afghan reinforcements, mainly ethnic Tajiks who were unwelcome in the Pashtun battleground, to help mop up enemy holdouts.

The troops were led by the wooden-legged general Gul Haider who fought first the Soviets then the Taliban as part of the northern alliance under the legendary Ahmed Shah Masood who was assassinated days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Saying they would rout al-Qaida remnants from their hide-outs, about 70 Afghan fighters sitting on tanks and trucks loaded with artillery rumbled into Gardez late in the day and were part of a force of about 1,000 which the Karzai government said it was sending to the area.

Despite snow, bitter cold and dense clouds in the mountains, allied forces cleared caves, land mines and flew reconnaissance and bombing missions over the Shah-e-Kot range where the battle has raged since last Saturday.

500 to 600 killed

Col. Joe Smith, chief of staff of the 10th Mountain Division, said fighting Thursday night had been intense in the southern part of the battle area.

U.S. officers say about 500 to 600 al-Qaida and holdouts have been killed since the offensive began last weekend. The death toll is far higher than U.S. estimates of the size of the entire enemy force when the operation began.

The confirmed coalition toll remained at eight U.S. servicemen and three Afghans.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the enemy fighters still battling a growing U.S.-led force "dead-enders" and backed down from his estimation that Operation Anaconda could wrap up over the weekend. He said several more days may be required to clear the region.

"I have not seen anyone surrender," Col. Frank Wiercinski, whose 101st Airborne Division troops have been battling al-Qaida fighters and their Taliban allies for a week in the icy, rugged mountains here in Paktia province.

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