US claims Afghan cave battle is drawing to a close

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The Independent Online

Despite the appalling weather now settling on the region, the US claimed yesterday that the end was almost in sight for Operation Anaconda – the fierce week-long campaign to dislodge hundreds of al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters from their mountain lairs, south of the Afghan town of Gardez.

As the seventh day of the battle ended, US commanders claimed many more of the enemy had been killed, and that roads used to bring in reinforcements had been cut. Most importantly, the allied forces said they had seized many high positions from which their opponents had been co-ordinating fire.

Though the weather may hinder operations, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, indicated that the battle, which has claimed the lives of eight American and seven Afghan soldiers, may be over by sometime next week. A total of 50 American soldiers had been wounded so far in the operation, according to the Pentagon.

Frank Wiercinski, a colonel with the 101st Airborne Division, said: "Right now, the mortar fire is not that accurate because we command a lot of the observation points they used to command."

But every sign is that, despite claims of hundreds of casualties, the hardcore al-Qa'ida forces operating from a complex of deep caves seems resolved to fight to the death. Col Wiercinski said that no enemy fighters had surrendered during the latest 24 hours of the battle.

As the fighting temporarily ebbed amid driving snow and high winds, the Afghan government of the interim president, Hamid Karzai, sent a 1,000-strong force accompanied by 10 tanks to Gardez. The contingent will double the size of the Afghan force fighting the rebels, around the Shah-i-Kot valley, close to the frontier with Pakistan.

Though the weather may hinder operations, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, indicated that the battle, which has claimed the lives of eight American and seven Afghan soldiers, may be over by sometime next week.

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