For the first time, the Bush administration has confirmed that US and British special forces units have been operating inside Afghanistan, helping to prepare the way for an offensive against Osama bin Laden and his followers.
The officials were commenting on reports in the USA Today newspaper that units of three to five men from the US army and navy special forces, as well as from the SAS, were in Afghanistan on a search and destroy mission aimed at Mr bin Laden.
But for the time being, every sign is that American and other Western intelligence services have failed to pinpoint his whereabouts. More probably, intelligence specialists say, the covert units are on reconnaissance and surveillance missions and preparing forward bases inside the country.
A senior Bush administration official said yesterday that US and British forces have conducted scouting missions in Afghanistan. But the official denied they were actively hunting Mr bin Laden, seen as the prime suspect in the 11 September suicide attacks on New York and Washington.
Pentagon officials also said that US and British special forces were inside Afghanistan, but no further details were available from a tight-lipped defence department, which normally would not even comment on such reports.
The presence of special forces units would be no surprise, to the Taliban or anyone else. In such circumstances, when a military campaign is imminent, special forces are usually the first to be sent in.
The Sunday Times reported this week that SAS troops had been fired on by Taliban forces on 21 September near Kabul. But the paper's report was denied by officials in London. Other published reports have mentioned US forces arriving at air bases in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the area.
Quoting Pakistani and US sources, USA Today said the units arrived in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar two weeks ago, barely 48 hours after the terrorist attacks in America.
Some were rapid deployment troops from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions, others from army and navy special forces. A command center has been set up in the region, the newspaper quoted Pakistani officials as saying.
After deploying into Afghanistan by helicopter, the units had focused their efforts on caves and underground bunkers near Kandahar in south-western Afghanistan, where Mr bin Laden based his operations, USA Today said.
President Bush yesterday said the United States was in "hot pursuit" of the terrorists, but refused to discuss details of operations. Nevertheless, he alluded to special forces in comments to reporters. "It is very hard to fight a ... guerrilla war with conventional forces," he said.
But in Pakistan, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Riaz Mohammed Khan, said: "We have no information about any active engagement of the United States special forces in Afghanistan."
Canada hinted that its own commandos from the shadowy Joint Task Force Two may be secretly operating in Afghan-istan. The Canadian Defence Minister, Art Eggleton, when asked if Canadian forces might be secretly operating in Afghanistan told reporters: "None that I can talk about."
Mr Eggleton's comments later drew a forceful denial last night from the defence ministry spokesman, Randy Mylyk. He said: "There are no Canadian forces members in Afghanis-tan. Period. Nothing."
The main units of special forces include the SAS, as well as the US army's Green Berets, Ranger light infantry and the super-secretive counter-terrorist outfit known as Delta Force, as well as navy SEALs.Reuse content