- The Washington Times - Friday, March 15, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) Mopping up after the biggest U.S.-led offensive of the Afghan war, U.S. and Canadian troops killed three terrorists yesterday in a 90-minute gunbattle while clearing caves and bunkers in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

The Canadian Press news agency, which has a reporter with Canadian troops, said coalition troops subdued suspected al Qaeda or Taliban guerrillas with anti-tank weapons, grenades, heavy machine guns and small arms fire.

There were no U.S. or Canadian casualties, the agency said. The coalition casualty toll stood at eight U.S. Special Forces soldiers and three Afghan allied fighters. All died in the first two days of the operation.

U.S., Canadian and Afghan troops yesterday combed the area around the Shah-e-Kot Valley for intelligence information and stray enemy fighters left behind after al Qaeda and its Afghan Taliban allies fled the area following Operation Anaconda's 12 days of air strikes and ground fighting.

Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, commander of coalition troops in Afghanistan, told reporters he had ordered DNA tests on remains of al Qaeda guerrillas to determine whether any senior figures in the terrorist network were among the dead.

Neither Osama bin Laden nor Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was believed to be in the area March 2 when U.S. forces and their Afghan allies launched the offensive.

Gen. Hagenbeck said some of the 20 prisoners captured in the operation indicated that "second and third tier" al Qaeda leaders had been killed.

"Even if it's a long shot that maybe one of these al Qaeda leaders [was there], we want to go through every means we've got available to us to try to positively identify them," he said.

He has said coalition forces searching the caves had already found bomb-making devices and manuals on how to attack individuals in cars and blow up bridges.

The general also said the cave searches have turned up large weapons caches, some of which will be turned over to the Afghan army.

Gen. Hagenbeck also acknowledged that some civilians were killed in the fighting, though he did not say how many. He blamed the deaths on al Qaeda, which set up mortar positions between the houses in the hamlets of the Shah-e-Kot Valley.

"It's always tragic when noncombatants are killed in something like this," Gen. Hagenbeck said.

It is still uncertain how many terrorists were killed in the operation. Some U.S. officers have estimated as many as 500 al Qaeda guerrillas were killed, but Afghan fighters said only 25 bodies had been found in the initial sweep of the area. Others may be buried in caves that collapsed during the bombing.

U.S. and Afghan officials are also uncertain how many fighters may have escaped and are trying to flee to Pakistan. U.S. attack helicopters patrolled the area yesterday, trying to locate any pockets of al Qaeda survivors.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said Wednesday that fighting in the Shah-e-Kot area had "mostly ended" and that troops were in the "exploitation phase," going cave to cave in search of bodies, weapons and intelligence information.

In Berlin, the leader of Afghanistan's interim government, Hamid Karzai, said yesterday that he believes the Taliban and al Qaada still pose a threat to his country.

"There's no doubt there will be isolated pockets of terrorism elsewhere in the country," Mr. Karzai said.

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