- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

SHAH-E-KOT, Afghanistan (AP) U.S. Marine helicopter gunships blasted cave entrances yesterday in the rugged mountains, seeking to stop al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from escaping after U.S. and Afghan troops seized control of this valley.
Afghan commanders said many al Qaeda and Taliban fighters including their commander, Saif Rahman Mansour got away before Afghan troops overran three villages and a commanding ridgeline early yesterday.
U.S. officials said they were holding about 20 prisoners who were being interrogated, and that Operation Anaconda, the biggest U.S.-led offensive of the five-month Afghan war, yielded valuable information about al Qaeda.
Pentagon officials had repeatedly said the only choice facing the enemy troops was to "surrender or die," although Afghan commanders had been prepared to allow them to leave.
Col. Frank Wiercinski, a brigade commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said cave searches had turned up al Qaeda training manuals, bomb-making equipment and other intelligence on the terrorist network.
"I think we got a lot of them but we're not really sure," said one U.S. special forces officer, who refused to give his name. He said operations would continue in the area for 30 to 35 days, but on a smaller scale.
Lt. Col. David Gray, an operations officer of the U.S. 10th Mountain Division, said about 500 enemy fighters were killed, mostly non-Afghans from Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, in the 12-day offensive in eastern Afghanistan.
"What we have done is denied al Qaeda of its most important, well-trained fighters," he said.
But Afghan troops said they found only 25 bodies in the initial sweep of the area. Others may be buried in caves that collapsed during the bombing.
Leading the final assault were Afghan commanders Zia Lodin and Gul Haider, who had floated the idea of a negotiated exit.
"They're trying to slip away," one Afghan commander, Mohammed Qasim, said of the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. "They're going in different directions in the mountains" toward Pakistan.
Fighting died down during the past five days, enabling the United States to withdraw most of the estimated 1,400 troops from the 101st Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division who fought in the battle.
The coalition casualty toll since the offensive began March 2 stood at eight U.S. special forces troops and three Afghan allied fighters.
U.S. officials had hoped to prevent a repeat of Tora Bora, the cave complex U.S. troops hammered for weeks in December on suspicion that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was inside.
Afghan militias from the area conducted most of the ground fighting at Tora Bora, and U.S. authorities said they apparently let many al Qaeda fighters escape to Pakistan. When Tora Bora was finally overrun, there was no sign of bin Laden.


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