Al-Qa'ida biological weapons laboratory is 'found in Afghanistan cave'

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US special forces scouring the mountains of south-eastern Afghanistan for remnants of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida uncovered a biological weapons laboratory hidden in caves, Whitehall sources said yesterday.

They said that the find confirmed the determination of al-Qa'ida to develop and deploy biological weapons, as indicated by the pages of evidence turned up in abandoned houses in Kabul and other cities after US bombing raids.

The laboratory find was made recently in the course of Operation Anaconda, which was conducted in the Shar-e-Kot mountains south of Kabul by joint US and Afghan forces. Tracking down and destroying any similar installations will be one of the tasks of the British army contingent being dispatched to Afghanistan this weekend, the sources said.

Although the Pentagon has declared Operation Anaconda successfully completed, US special forces encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance and were forced into extensive fire fights. Eight Americans and an unknown number of the enemy were killed. The US claimed that several hundred Taliban fighters died, but fewer than 20 enemy deaths have been confirmed. The British sources said the likelihood was that many Taliban and al-Qa'ida escaped further into the mountains.

Britain enjoys a close intelligence relationship with the US, but the Pentagon has disclosed nothing about a weapons laboratory. It reported that US forces had found a large cache of (unspecified) weapons in the early stages of Operation Anaconda – and has repeatedly cited al-Qa'ida's intent to develop biological, chemical and even nuclear weapons, but yesterday's disclosure was the first to allege the existence of a laboratory in the mountains.

There was no detail about what the laboratory consisted of: whether it contained scientific equipment or maybe just a few canisters of potentially dangerous substances.

News of the discovery came against a background of misgivings in British political circles about the dispatch to Afghanistan of 1,700 British troops, including Marines trained for winter and mountain conditions. Officially, they are to take part in "mopping up" operations in the same mountains where Operation Anaconda met such forceful resistance. No term has been set for their withdrawal, however, and the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, aroused concern when he said this week that the mission was "open-ended".

Whitehall sources admitted yesterday that the presentation of the new troop deployment had left much to be desired. The boast that this was the biggest combat deployment since the Gulf War had, they said, while "just true", been particularly unfortunate.

They admitted that Downing Street had been "shocked" by the hostile political reaction, which they put down to the – erroneous – impression the public had gained that the war in Afghanistan was over and won.