"Terrible weather" slows attack on al Qaeda
By Charles Aldinger
Saturday March 9, 2:15 AM
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - "Terrible weather" in eastern Afghanistan on Friday slowed a U.S.-led military assault on trapped and fiercely resisting al Qaeda forces, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said.
He said winter conditions in the high mountains near Gardez were limiting air strikes by U.S. warplanes to satellite-guided bombs and preventing AC-130 flying gunships from using 105mm cannon and 40mm machine guns against entrenched guerrillas.
Other defence officials said the harsh winter also was keeping U.S. attack helicopters temporarily out of the battle.
Rumsfeld appeared in television interviews to back away from a prediction made on Thursday that a week-long assault by more than 2,000 U.S.-led troops on hundreds of guerrillas might be over as early as this weekend.
But he expressed confidence that it could end in days.
"It looked to me like it would be days, meaning seven, eight, 10 as opposed to weeks or months," he said in response to questions on Fox television about a prediction made earlier to Pentagon workers.
"The weather is just terrible so that a lot of our air assets are not able to fly. But my guess is that over the coming period of some days ... it will wind down" Rumsfeld said on Friday.
"No. These things are not predictable," he responded when asked in a CNN interview if the assault led by American troops on a stronghold of regrouping al Qaeda and Taliban was all but over.
"There are still any number of al Qaeda and probably Taliban located in those caves and tunnels and in very well-entrenched positions. They have got a lot of ammunition," Rumsfeld added.
But he said the al Qaeda and Taliban remained surrounded and "I don't believe they are getting reinforcements or supplies."
In Afghanistan, the U.S. military said on Friday al Qaeda's resistance was faltering after nearly a week of fierce fighting, with coalition forces gaining the higher ground.
With the battle in its seventh day, the U.S. military said a large number of al Qaeda fighters were killed in overnight battles and routes used by rebel reinforcements were being cut off. They were showing no signs of giving up.
"Right now the mortar fire is not that accurate because we command a lot of the OPs (observation points) that they used to command," Army Col. Frank Wiercinski of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division told reporters at Bagram Air Base, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
Al Qaeda resistance wanes as U.S. takes high ground
By Christine Hauser and Stuart Grudgings
Saturday March 9, 12:42 AM
GARDEZ/BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The U.S. military said on Friday al Qaeda's resistance was faltering after nearly a week of fierce fighting in freezing Afghan mountains, with coalition forces gaining the higher ground.
With the battle in its seventh day, the U.S. military said a large number of al Qaeda fighters were killed in overnight battles and routes used by rebel reinforcements were being cut off. But the enemy was showing no signs of giving up.
"Right now the mortar fire is not that accurate because we command a lot of the OPs (observation points) that they used to command," Frank Wiercinski, a colonel with the 101st Airborne Division, told reporters at Bagram Air Base, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.
He said no enemy fighters had surrendered during the largest U.S.-led ground offensive of the Afghan war, suggesting a hardened core of al Qaeda followers was intent on fighting to the death from their caves and bunkers.
As more bad weather closed in on the mountain battlefield, an Afghan Defence Ministry official said on Friday a 1,000- strong Afghan force loyal to interim leader Hamid Karzai and backed by 10 tanks was on its way to the eastern city of Gardez.
The reinforcements will double the size of the Afghan force fighting the rebels around the valley of Shahi Kot that is near Gardez and close to the Pakistan border.
Wiercinski said coalition forces were also concentrating on cutting off al Qaeda reinforcements, who managed to join the battle in the first few days, apparently by travelling in small groups through mountain passes.
Afghan forces have formed an outer ring around the area to seal off such routes, while U.S. and other allied soldiers close in on the al Qaeda positions.
"We have identified many of those routes now and cut them off," Wiercinski said.
Earlier on Friday, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Smith said there were "lots of al Qaeda casualties" during night fighting.
Despite days of bombing from the air and fierce ground assaults, the rebels were standing firm, Smith told reporters at Bagram air base, the main controlling point for the battle that is taking place about 150 km (85 miles) south of Kabul.
He said the military had anticipated the snow and bad weather at present covering the 10 km (six-mile) frontline but gave no details on how badly it had affected operations on the battlefront more than 30 km (20 miles) from Gardez.
Operation Anaconda, the biggest U.S.-led ground offensive of the five-month Afghan war, involves more than 2,000 U.S., Afghan and other allied troops against more than 1,000 rebel forces holed up in 3,000 metre (10,000 feet) mountains.
It was launched last Saturday to wipe out a major hideout of the Taliban and al Qaeda, the network of Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the September 11 attacks on the United States.
The U.S. military says eight American soldiers and seven Afghan troops have already died in the battle and there have been about 100 wounded in the week-long fighting.
The military on Friday awarded Purple Hearts to six soldiers wounded during an assault on al Qaeda strongholds.
The ceremony at Bagram honoured five soldiers from a company pinned down by heavy fire from al Qaeda positions, and an "Apache" helicopter pilot struck by a ricocheting bullet while supporting ground troops.
The five soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division were part of a group that found itself in an 18-hour firefight after landing in the freezing combat zone last weekend. Around a quarter of the 80 men in the group were wounded, some seriously.
"THEY FIGHT HARD"
The military now believes there are few Taliban in the mountains near Gardez, saying the fighters are mainly foreign professional troops from al Qaeda.
"This pocket is almost exclusively hardline al Qaeda," Smith said on Friday. "They are highly trained, they are in their mid-30s, they're in excellent shape and they fight hard."
"This hardened enemy is the same type of people that executed the events of 11th September. It is obvious from documentation we've been getting that they are not just peasants," he said, adding some of the rebels had advanced training manuals on how to shoot down a helicopter.
Allied Afghan soldiers said there were Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis, Kashmiri and maybe even disillusioned Muslims from the United States and other Western nations among their foes.
"They are ready for martyrdom and will die to the last man," Afghan commander Abdul Muteen said.
"Taliban and al-Qaeda forces are well aware that there is going to be no end to this war but by death, but they are still putting up fierce resistance," said Commander Mohammad Ismail, who is in charge of a unit of men poised to reinforce Shahi Kot.
"It is not like a battle along a frontline, but more like a guerrilla war, where they jump out of the caves from time to time opening fire with heavy machine guns trying to find our weaknesses," Ismail said.
Deployment against al-Qaeda a symbol of Afghan government's authority
Friday March 8, 8:45 PM
Afghanistan's interim government has for the first time sent its own troops to help the US-led coalition battling al-Qaeda and Taliban extremists, but the motivation seems to be more political symbolism than military strategy.
In sending nine aging Russian tanks and 1,000 men to the frontline in eastern Paktia province, Hamid Karzai's government is showing itself as a partner of the United States, whose air power helped the Northern Alliance sweep into Kabul last year and rout the Taliban regime.
The interim government, which is dominated by the Northern Alliance, is also demonstrating it has a veritable army, one of the most visible symbols of sovereignty.
As the army convoy rumbled south Friday, the force's commander General Gul Haidar took pains to emphasize the army was multi-ethnic and included Pashtuns, who formed the bulwark of the Taliban.
"Now there are no more differences between Tajiks and Pashtuns. We're all united against al-Qaeda; we are the national army," he told AFP.
Hundreds of Afghans have already been fighting in Operation Anaconda in the snow-capped Arma mountains, but they have been trained, equipped and paid by the US military.
The battle has been the deadliest for the United States since the Afghan military campaign began on October 7. Eight US servicemen have died, while at least three allied Afghans have also been killed.
Haidar, the defense ministry's official for the southern zone, said the national forces were not trained by, or on the payroll of, Washington.
"Our mujahedin are experienced in mountain battle. The Taliban and al-Qaeda forces aren't strong and they have no way to escape," Haidar said.
The deployed tanks belonged to the Northern Alliance and are operated by Tajiks from the Panjshir valley north of Kabul. But they will be entering an area dominated by the Pashtuns, with whom they have had sour relations in the past.
Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim called for the force Wednesday at a meeting in Kabul of warlords on the new national army.
The army's first battalion, with soldiers hailing from diverse regions of Afghanistan, began training late last month under the eye of international advisers. The United States and its allies believe a multi-ethnic army is paramount to ensuring security in Afghanistan after 23 years of war.
But following Haidar en route to Paktia province was a ragtag contingent of 150 fighters, who followed the tanks on foot. They were armed mostly with light weapons, and some lacked even uniforms.
In Gardez, one local commander battling with the US-led coalition criticized the deployment of northern fighters.
"We don't need any reinforcements," quipped Ismael (eds: one name), who said he had hundreds of US-equipped fighters under his orders.
"The Americans give strong air support, so of what use would those tanks be?"
The deployment could be motivated by domestic considerations, to protect residents of Gardez as al-Qaeda gets battered by more than 1,000 troops from the United States and allied countries, many of them elite forces.
Internal politics could also be at play, with the interim government keen to exert its control over the restive province.
The Kabul-appointed governor of Paktia, Taj Mohammad Wardak, who holds little control in parts of the mountainous province, requested the national troops.
The man passed over for the governor's office, Padsha Khan, has made clear he wants the job he had originally been promised and is prepared to fight for it.
While the two warlords are on the same side in the fight against al-Qaeda, Khan at the end of January sent his men into Gardez in an attempt to take the governorship by force.
His troops were repulsed in fighting with another local warlord which left about 50 people dead.
But on the road to Paktia, the interim government's soldiers offered a straightforward analysis for their deployment.
"We are going to smash the last terrorists and defend Afghanistan," said one of the troops.
China to ask Afghan government to repatriate separatists
<>By Tamora Vidaillet
Friday March 8, 7:49 PM
BEIJING (Reuters) - China plans to ask Afghanistan's interim government to repatriate Chinese Muslim Uighurs found fighting alongside Taliban forces, a senior official from the northwestern region of Xinjiang said on Friday. >
An unspecified number of Muslim separatists seeking an independent state in Xinjiang had tried to sneak back into China, Xinjiang governor Ablat Abdureshit told a news conference.
"They are not large in number. Some of them have tried to infiltrate back into China and some of them have been captured," he said during an annual two-week session of the National People's Congress or parliament.
"Some of them have been left in Afghanistan."
Asked whether China would ask the interim Afghan government to return the Chinese nationals, he said: "We will launch a request for their extradition back to China."
Abdureshit declined to say how many Uighurs had been captured crossing back into Xinjiang from Afghanistan and said it was too early to say whether the number of Uighurs still in Afghanistan numbered in the dozens or hundreds.
In December, a senior U.S. official said Uighurs had been caught in Afghanistan but that the United States would not hand them over to Beijing due to differing interpretations of what constitutes a terrorist.
China has backed the U.S.-war on terrorism but wants international support for its campaign against Muslim Uighur activists in Xinjiang. The militants are seeking an independent state of East Turkestan.
Abdureshit said China welcomed U.S. military presence in neighbouring Afghanistan given Beijing's support for the battle against terrorism.
China has blamed Uighurs for more than 200 violent incidents between 1990 and 2001 in Xinjiang and says Osama bin Laden, chief suspect for the September 11 attacks, provided financial and material aid to them.
Abdureshit said the nature of separatism in Xinjiang had not changed in the wake of the September 11 attacks and that China was conducting an extensive education campaign to make Uighurs more patriotic.
No major violent acts had been committed by Uighurs in the past year but separatist activities still occurred every day in Xinjiang, he said without elaborating.
China has strengthened its security forces to fight a perceived rise in terror threats following the September 11 attacks, the China Daily newspaper said on Friday.
Special anti-terror and anti-hijacking units had been set up in all of China's 31 provincial capitals and mobile anti-terror forces had been created in areas "under heavy threat from possible terrorist attacks," senior police officer Liu Hongjun was quoted as saying.
An annual global human rights report issued by the U.S. State Department this week said China had intensified its crackdown on some religious groups in 2001 and used the war on terrorism to justify a campaign against Uighur separatists.
China has blasted the report and told Washington not to hold double standards in the war on terrorism.
Robinson calls for more foreign troops as Afghan women celebrate
Friday March 8, 7:21 PM
UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson called for more international troops to secure Afghanistan as local women celebrated the first International Women's Day since the fall of the Taliban.
"This was an incredible celebration which was led by Afghan women who have suffered so much but also want to contribute now to the new Afghanistan," Robinson said after a ceremony attended by interim cabinet leader Hamid Karzai, Women's Affairs Minister Sima Samar and women community leaders.
"It was a joy for those of us who came from outside to be here but the day belongs to the women of Afghanistan."
Robinson said women's rights had improved since the fall of the Taliban, the hardline Islamic regime which banned women from most work and education during its five-year rule from 1996 until November last year.
"Before on International Women's Day, we reflected sadly on the terrible situation of the women here," she said.
"Now their voices are so positive. They are determined to make a new future. I think it's wonderful."
However Robinson said women had repeatedly expressed concerns about security, not only in the Afghan capital where some 4,000 mainly European troops have been deployed for nearly three months, but also in restive provinces where rival warlords continue to hold power.
"I think that the international force that is here must be extended beyond Kabul," she said, echoing calls from Karzai and prominent Afghan women.
"That's very clear when you are here. You cannot have the rebuilding of a whole society and security for human rights if you have violence, if you have killings, if you have robberies, if you have looting and if you have women terrified and feeling as though nothing has changed."
Robinson referred to the reported widespread abuse and harassment of Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan at the hands of rival ethnic militias loyal to senior members of Karzai's interim cabinet.
In a report released Sunday, Human Rights Watch said thousands of Pashtuns were being forced to leave their villages due to an "ongoing campaign of violence and intimidation" that included sexual abuse.
Robinson welcomed moves by Karzai to investigate the extent of the harassment but called on the interim cabinet to do more to protect the rights of innocent women and children around the country.
"It must be controlled and it must not be allowed to take place," she said.
Robinson also said the development of a "disciplined" army and police force under the command of a representative government in Kabul was essential to protect women's rights.
Earlier Friday hundreds of women gathered at the Women's Affairs Ministry to celebrate International Women's Day.
Some remembered the dark years of Taliban rule, when women were subjected to gross human rights abuses in the name of "Islamic" law, while others focused on the future and the challenges facing the war-ravaged country.
Fahima Omar told AFP how she worked covertly for the United Nations during the Taliban years, and the joy she felt now that she could openly discuss human rights and the reconstruction of the country.
"I can go to the office. I can walk on the street and catch a taxi. I feel freedom now to talk and say what I think," she said.
"But we want more change. We have lost so much but now we have a lot of work to do, especially in education and health."
More Afghans head to front line in eastern mountains
Friday March 8, 4:12 PM
A convoy sent by Afghanistan's defence ministry that included nine heavy tanks was seen heading Friday toward Paktia province, where US-led forces are battling al-Qaeda.
The convoy, including some 150 men on foot, was heading south from Kabul through the village of Mohammad Agha in Logar province, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Paktia's capital Gardez.
"We're going to Gardez to crush Osama bin Laden's supporters. Our mujahedin are experienced in mountain battle. The Taliban and al-Qaeda forces aren't strong and they have no way to escape," General Gul Haidar told AFP here on Friday.
"We want them to lay down their arms if they are Afghans and to hand over their foreign fighters. If not, we'll crush them," he said.
Haidar, the defence ministry's official for Afghanistan's southern zone, stressed that the deployment -- the first time the interim government has sent forces on behalf of the international coalition -- was made up of troops from Afghanistan's various ethnic groups, although most troops seen on the road were ethnic Tajiks.
"Now there are no more differences between Tajiks and Pashtuns. We're all united against al-Qaeda; we are the national army," he said.
Pashtuns formed the bulwark of the ousted Taliban militia that allowed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, a Saudi dissident who allegedly masterminded the September 11 attacks on the United States, to stay as its "guest".
Haider thought the al-Qaeda fighters may be reinforced from lawless areas in neighboring Pakistan but said he would know for sure once he reached Gardez.
Afghanistan's interim government said Thursday it was sending 1,000 heavily armed reinforcements to Paktia, where US-led forces Saturday launched Operation Anaconda to smash an al-Qaeda base in the rugged Arma mountains.
Hundreds of Afghans, many under the command of warlord Zia Lodin, are already fighting in Paktia alongside more than 1,000 US troops and some 200 commandos from allied nations, according to the US military.
Eight US servicemen have been killed in Operation Anaconda, named after the snake that encircles and crushes its prey, in the deadliest operation for the international coalition since the Afghan military campaign began October 7.
Paktia has also been the scene of fighting between rival tribal warlords over interim leader Hamid Karzai's choice of governor, and the Kabul administration is keen to assert its control over the area.
The troop deployment was requested by provincial Governor Taj Mohammad Wardak, whose forces have clashed with rival warlord Padsha Khan. Both men's troops have allied themselves with the US-led coalition.
Afghan troops join US forces in offensive against al-Qaeda remnants
Friday March 8, 4:03 PM
Heavily armed US troops backed by 1,000 Afghan forces poured into eastern Afghanistan to step up the battle against die-hard al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters holed up in the mountains.
Soldiers wounded in the fighting said US troops found themselves under intense fire from the start of the biggest US combat operation of the Afghan war, facing a larger, more formidable al-Qaeda foe than US intelligence had anticipated.
As fierce fighting raged on in Paktia province for a sixth day, the Afghan defense ministry in Kabul announced it had sent 1,000 troops to the front after US commanders ordered hundreds more troops and attack helicopters sent in.
Afghan armored vehicles, including six tanks, were seen late Thursday heading to the front lines in Paktia province.
B-52s and other warplanes have kept up round-the-clock strikes against al-Qaeda positions in the rugged Arma mountains, which interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai called "the last isolated base of terrorists" in the country.
The US-led forces killed more than 100 suspected al-Qaeda fighters in the ground and air attacks Wednesday, according to a US military spokesman at Bagram air base.
Operation commander Major General Frank Hagenbeck had said Wednesday afternoon that at least half of the 600 to 700 al-Qaeda fighters thought to be holed up had been killed.
The freshly resupplied US, Afghan and allied forces continued to push south from the village of Sirkankel, 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) south of Gardez, into one of the militant group's last remaining strongholds in Afghanistan, US Army Major Bryan Hilferty said.
He said the coalition forces had taken some al-Qaeda fighters prisoner, but he did not know how many.
US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in Washington that the US-led assault on the al-Qaeda stronghold could be over as early as this weekend, but he said al-Qaeda fighters have shown no inclination to surrender and appeared to be well supplied.
"I would think it would end sometime this weekend or next week, but one can't be sure," Rumsfeld said, referring to Operation Anaconda, named after the snake that encircles and crushes its prey.
Eight US servicemen have been killed and about 50 wounded in fierce fighting in the operation, which is the deadliest battle for US forces since the military campaign began on October 7 to rid Afghanistan of the extremist Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden.
Army General Tommy Franks, commander of the US military campaign in Afghanistan, said 200 to 300 more US troops have been moved into the battle zone, a 155-square-kilometer (62-square-mile) area where more than 2,000 US, Afghan and coalition troops are battling dug-in al-Qaeda fighters believed to come from places including Uzbekistan and Chechnya.
Some 950 US ground or Special Forces troops are fighting the militants in the snow-capped mountains, along with 200 commandos from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany and Norway and hundreds of allied Afghan fighters.
But the exiled king of Afghanistan denounced the US-led war in his country as "stupid and useless" in an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa published Thursday.
Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, who is due to return in two weeks for a meeting of tribal elders to decide the future of the war-torn nation, told the paper the campaign "is a stupid and useless war, and it would be better to stop it immediately."
Meanwhile in Manila, a rebel leader warned Friday that the chances of armed contact between the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and US Special Forces troops advising Philippine soldiers are growing by the day.
The 160 US soldiers are engaged in six months of exercises to bolster the capability of both forces in fighting terrorism, specifically against Abu Sayyaf Muslim guerrillas allegedly linked to al-Qaeda.
But Mohamad Murad, the MILF's top military commander, said that as US and Philippine troops spread out across the southern island of Basilan, they could encroach on what the MILF considers its territory.
In Yemen, about 400 US troops and CIA agents are hunting down suspected combatants from the al-Qaeda network who infiltrated the Arab country from Afghanistan, the Al-Hayat newspaper reported Thursday.
The London-based daily, quoting diplomatic sources, said the US forces were equipped with aerial reconnaissance drones and other surveillance equipment and were operating alongside Yemeni authorities.
And in Washington, the White House said Thursday that President George W. Bush will welcome British Prime Minister Tony Blair to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, from April 5 to 7 for talks expected to focus on the war on terrorism.
In late February, the British weekly The Observer said the summit aimed to determine the allies' next move in the war on terror, with possible military action against Iraq topping the agenda.
US-led forces face more days of fighting (BBC)
American officials say US-led forces are preparing for a final push in their offensive to rout suspected al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters from mountain caves and bunkers. Driving snow and high winds in eastern Afghanistan have slowed Operation Anaconda, which began eight days ago. But US military spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty said the bad weather could work to the Americans' advantage, making life difficult for fighters dug in high up in the mountains. The fighting has been some of the fiercest since October
To help defeat the militants, the Afghan defence ministry has been sending reinforcements to the region to await further orders. Major Hilferty, while admitting that al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters are "hunkered down", said the US-led forces were ready to go after the militants. "When we find them, we will go and we will either make them surrender or we will kill them," he said. "We're going to search the caves, we're going to search the entire area." 'Dangerous missions' However, US Vice-President Dick Cheney has admitted that the bad weather means it could take up to 10 more days to dislodge the al-Qaeda and Taleban forces.
President George W Bush warned on Friday that the battle would not be the last fought by US forces conducting the war on terror in Afghanistan. "It is a sign of what is going to happen for a while," the US leader said during a visit to Florida, adding that "dangerous missions" still lay ahead. Hundreds of entrenched militants are said to have been killed in the assault, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the Afghan campaign. At least eight American and seven Afghan Government soldiers have been killed.
Afghan reinforcements have been heading south towards the city of Gardez along with tanks and heavy artillery. About 2,000 US and Afghan troops along with special forces from various countries are already in the battle zone. US officials say the militants, who are said to include Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks, are completely surrounded. But Afghan commanders have warned they could still slip away under cover of the snow.
The US-led military campaign began after Afghanistan's then Taleban government refused to hand over its ally, al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.
ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Adam Brookes
"There is no sign that the Taleban and al-Qaeda are going to give up"
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