US soldier dies in battle with Taliban

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The Independent Online

American Special Forces soldiers met fierce resistance yesterday as they spearheaded a major new offensive against al-Qa'ida and Taliban troops holding out in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Officials said that one US soldier was killed in the battle.

In the largest military operation in Afghanistan so far this year, both American and Afghanistan soldiers pushed into an area close to Gardez, which lies about 90 miles south of Kabul. The US supported the action with a heavy aerial bombardment.

There were reports that as many as 4,000 Taliban loyalists and al-Qa'ida fighters may be hiding in the mountains around Gardez. As the US and Afghan troops moved in for the assault, they met heavy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. Two Afghan soldiers were reported killed. There was an unspecified number of wounded.

The attack began on Friday night, officials said, with American helicopters and warplanes pounding suspected targets. Pakistan said it was sealing its border near the region to prevent Taliban and al-Qa'ida troops fleeing into its territory.

There was nothing to suggest, however, that either Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Omar, the ousted Taliban leader, were in the region.

"I can confirm that operations are ongoing in eastern Afghanistan,'' US military spokesman Major AC Roper told a news briefing in the southern city of Kandahar. There were also reports that a large number of US troops had been moved from Kandahar air base to Bagram air base, north of Kabul.

"There has been heavy US bombing since last night and it is still going on today,'' Kamal Wazir, a spokesman for the province's key warlord, Padshah Khan Zadran, told Reuters. "We started a ground attack by 600 of our fighters at 2am this morning. There are 50 or 60 American advisers with us," he said. "The Taliban and al Qa'ida men are fighting back by firing rockets and heavy weapons at us."

"For some time now, coalition and Afghan forces have been conducting operations in eastern Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qa'ida and Taliban groups that have been identified in the area," Mr Roper, the US spokesman, said.

In another sign that the US means to push its fight against terrorism far beyond the borders of Afghanistan, it emerged that President George Bush has given the go-ahead for the deployment of 100 US soldiers to Yemen. They could leave to take up their role there as early as this week, officials confirmed.

The mission in Yemen will also be to hunt down al-Qa'ida fighters thought to be in hiding in the country.