Friday, November 16, 2001

GREAT LAKES, Ill. U.S. special forces have been involved in ground combat in Afghanistan, killing Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today. No Americans have died in the operations, he said.

“They are armed and they’re participating,” the Pentagon chief said, describing the ongoing battle to erase the al-Qaida terrorist network and the Taliban militia that supports them.

“They have gone into places and met resistance and dealt with it,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. He declined to say specifically how many forces are there. “We have hundreds.”

Troops from U.S.-allied countries also are on the ground, Mr. Rumsfeld said, but he would not identify those countries.

As a result of ground action in the south of Afghanistan, he said, “It is becoming less and less hospitable for al-Qaida to be around.”

He spoke to reporters while flying here to address the graduating class at the Naval Training Center. The center, the only boot camp for Navy enlisted men and women, graduates 55,000 recruits a year.

Mr. Rumsfeld said high-level Taliban leaders have been captured by opposition Afghan forces and American officials are planning to interrogate them.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s comments came after U.S. officials declared they were “tightening the noose” around Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network with selective air attacks and clandestine direct action on the ground.

“We have not had anyone killed but they have been in situations,” Mr. Rumsfeld said of the U.S. ground operations in Afghanistan.

The defense secretary said there’s “a good deal happening” in the south of the country where Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have fled as the opposition has overtaken large parts of the country.

Talking about tribes in the south, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “They have been moving into towns and villages and cities and putting pressure on the Taliban to leave.”

Asked what the U.S. special forces are doing in the south, he said, “They are looking for information. They’re interdicting roads. They’re killing Taliban that won’t surrender and al-Qaida that are trying to move from one place to another.”

He said special forces are also looking for airfields where transport aircraft can land supplies as operations continue in the area.

Mr. Rumsfeld didn’t specify how many combat incidents U.S. ground forces had been involved in. At times U.S. forces had were overrun but were able to call in airstrikes to fend off their attackers.

One of the incidents took place near Mazar-e Sharif, he said.

He pledged to keep up the pressure through the Muslim holy time of Ramadan, including hunting down terrorist leader bin Laden and his cohorts “as rapidly as possible.”

A second group of Marines, meanwhile, is heading to the Arabian Sea to join the U.S. military operation against Afghanistan, defense officials said today. About 2,100 Marines aboard a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group, led by the USS Bataan, sailed through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea yesterday, the officials said. Another group of 2,100 Marines already is in the Arabian Sea.

Pentagon officials said today that the bombing of Afghanistan has continued apace. “No change in operations as a result of Ramadan,” said spokesman Richard McGraw. He didn’t specify where the bombing was occurring but offered: “I wouldn’t characterize any area as secure.”

Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in the region, planned to present his updated war plan to President Bush today. The sudden retreat of Taliban forces from northern Afghanistan this week has prompted Franks to focus more intensely on rooting out leaders of the Taliban and bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network.

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