US troops stage final assault on hospital

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The Independent Online

US special forces hurled grenades through the windows of a burning hospital to finish off a nine-hour assault against al-Qaida gunmen who had been holed up there nearly two months and vowed never to be captured alive.

The operation, launched by US and Afghan forces supported by helicopters before dawn, appeared to have settled into a standoff before the American troops lobbed about 16 grenades through the windows to blast out the last surviving gunmen.

Afghan police commanders, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that all of the gunmen were dead.

The assault had dragged on nearly nine hours when, shortly after the mid–day call to prayers, the Americans moved in, coming out of cover on the side of the building to toss in the grenades. A string of explosions was heard, followed by pop–pops of pistol shots and a shrieks of automatic weapons fire.

Beforehand, Afghan soldiers had told each other on walkie–talkies that two of the gunmen inside were still alive following the morning's initial assault, and that three were dead.

Wounded and ill, the gunmen, at least some of whom were believed to be Arabs, had barricaded themselves inside the Mir Wais Hospital for nearly two months. They were trapped by the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime last year during the US–led military campaign.

The men had vowed to kill themselves rather than be captured and medical staff had feared they would wreak enormous violence if attempts were made to take them.

The rest of the building was evacuated and hospital administrators ordered food and water cut off two weeks ago, but it was believed that sympathetic staff may have been feeding them. They were also believed to have had stockpiles of food and water in place.

Deciding to end the siege, Afghan authorities asked for US help, said Maj. AC Roper, spokesman at the US military base at Kandahar airport.

A surrender ultimatum was issued about 3:40 a.m. Monday (2210 GMT Sunday), Afghan sources said on condition of anonymity. It was rejected and troops stormed the walled compound.

"The Arabs saw them, and they started firing," said Najabullah, an Afghan commander, briefing Kandahar government officials. He said the men had hurled grenades at the attacking troops.

A fire broke out and black smoke poured from the building. US sharpshooters eventually took positions on the ledges of the second storey, where the gunmen were holed up.

Before the raid, there were believed to be about five or six gunmen still in the hospital from an original 10 or so.

On Jan. 8, one fighter leaped out of a second–story window in an escape attempt, then blew himself up with a grenade as Afghan security personnel surrounded him. Two other men were said to have successfully escaped earlier, but that was never confirmed.

In December, two gunmen were captured when soldiers used the only doctor the men trusted to trick them. He called them into another room, guaranteeing their safety. They were apparently promised safe passage to neighboring Pakistan. When they separated themselves from their comrades, they were overpowered and captured.

The captured pair were handed over to US forces, who have set up a military base at the Kandahar airport. They were both Chinese, presumably militant Uighurs demanding independence for their Muslim–dominated northwestern province of China.

Thousands of Islamic extremists from many countries went to Afghanistan to join the cause of jihad, or holy war, which was supported by the Taliban regime that ruled the country. Many were affiliated with bin Laden's al–Qaida network, blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks in America.