General says U.S. forces have withdrawn from battle zone

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- All U.S. and Canadian forces have withdrawn from the eastern Shah-e-Kot Valley, where the biggest U.S.-led ground offensive of the war in Afghanistan took place earlier this month, a U.S. general said Tuesday.

Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, the commander of all coalition troops in Afghanistan, said that while Operation Anaconda was over, al-Qaida and Taliban would be actively pursued throughout Afghanistan.

"When we find pockets of resistance, we'll go after them," Hagenbeck said at Bagram air base north of Kabul.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces killed 16 fighters in a gunbattle and captured 31 others at a military compound, officials in Washington said Monday. There was no indication that any of those killed or captured were senior leaders of al-Qaida or the Taliban.

A team of U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers attacked a convoy of three vehicles on Sunday about 45 miles southwest of the city of Gardez, killing 16 people believed to be al-Qaida fighters and wounding one. One other was detained.

Gunbattle takes place

In a separate incident shortly after the firefight, U.S. forces captured 31 suspected al-Qaida or Taliban fighters in a compound west of the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, officials in Washington said.

Also Monday, Britain announced that it will send up to 1,700 troops to Afghanistan to help U.S. forces in future operations against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said Britain will deploy a full infantry battle group including Royal Marines commandos in Afghanistan in its largest military deployment for combat operations since the Persian Gulf war.

In an interview Tuesday with the British Broadcasting Corp., Hoon said the troops would stay there as long as necessary "to deal with the remaining elements of al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan."

The British already have about 1,600 troops assigned to the International Security Assistance Force currently stationed in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The force was deployed last year under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council to assist Afghanistan's new interim government in keeping the peace in Kabul.

The total ISAF force numbers about 4,500 troops.

Half brother speaks out

CNN reported Tuesday that a half brother of Osama bin Laden said his family believes bin Laden is still alive. Sheikh Ahmad, the half brother who refused to give his family name, said their mother received a call three weeks ago saying bin Laden was fine. He did not say who made the phone call.

Sheikh Ahmad also told CNN in an off-camera interview that bin Laden does not suffer from kidney disease, as has been widely reported. Sheikh Ahmad said he and his mother last saw bin Laden at the January 2001 wedding of one of bin Laden's sons in Afghanistan.

Tim Metz, a New York-based media consultant for the bin Laden family, confirmed that Sheikh Ahmad is "a half brother to Osama by his mother's second marriage, but he's not a bin Laden."

In fighting in the eastern Afghan town of Khost, gunmen challenging the authority of the newly appointed police chief exchanged fire with security forces, killing one person and injuring three others, witnesses said.

The gunbattle occurred in the town's main market and forced people to shutter their shops, the Afghan Islamic Press reported.

Khost is on the southeastern end of the valley where Operation Anaconda was staged. Close to the Pakistani border, the area was a hotbed of support for the Taliban and al-Qaida and has been the scene of several sporadic bombings and shootings in recent weeks.

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