- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 10, 2002

GARDEZ, Afghanistan U.S. troops and their Afghan allies scoured the icy mountains of eastern Afghanistan yesterday for a "high-value target," while other al Qaeda remnants hunkered down in caves to wait out driving winds and snow.
Coalition ground forces pushed ahead with efforts to eliminate the holdouts, pursuing a surrender-or-die policy against enemy forces targeted in the biggest U.S.-led military offensive of the Afghan war. Fighting was light as Operation Anaconda entered its second week, slowed by the extreme conditions.
Afghan fighters who returned yesterday from the front said about 400 al Qaeda fighters and their Taliban allies were holed up around one cave complex and about 100 more were believed around another.
The Afghans said enemy forces were running low on ammunition but efforts to finish them off have been slowed not only by terrain and weather but also by land mines.
One Afghan commander, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said American mine-clearing teams were trying to remove the mines but progress was slow.
He said at least 25 Chechens had been killed in his sector. He also said the bodies of 40 Afghan Taliban were handed over to their families to win support among local residents.
The commander said no major al Qaeda figures were believed among the holdouts, although an Egyptian, identified only as Sheik Saleh, was believed among them.
Afghans say neither Osama bin Laden nor ex-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is in the area. A former Taliban commander, Saif Rahman, however, is believed to be heading the troops in the mountains.
At the Bagram air base north of the capital, Kabul, Maj. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division, said at least one "high-value target" was among the holdouts but he refused to elaborate.
Maj. Hilferty said U.S. troops are operating under the assumption that bin Laden or other major al Qaeda figures might be anywhere, including the rugged Shah-e-Kot mountains south of Gardez.
As the offensive ground on, with coalition forces conducting supply, search and attack missions through the snow, a new feud between America's Afghan allies emerged and threatened to explode into violence.
The trouble began when the interim administration of Hamid Karzai dispatched convoys of new Afghan fighters into the battle area. The troops were ethnic Tajiks from the north, however, and their presence exacerbated ethnic tensions in the largely Pashtun area around Gardez.
Many Pashtuns see the Tajiks as interlopers on their land, and widely suspect that Tajiks in the Defense Ministry simply want to use the offensive to move their fighters into Paktia.
"We don't need them," front-line commander Abdul Matin Hasankhiel said. "We can fight the al Qaeda ourselves."
Mr. Karzai said the 1,000 additional troops were ordered up to Gardez because coalition forces had run into such strong resistance during the opening days of the offensive.


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