- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

The Pentagon said yesterday that hundreds of Taliban militia and al Qaeda terrorist fighters are regrouping in eastern Afghanistan.
Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa, the new deputy director of operations for the Joint Staff, said the fighters were spotted near the city of Gardez, which is the capital of Paktia province and about 50 miles south of Kabul.
"We are seeing pockets of al Qaeda and pockets of Taliban," Gen. Rosa told reporters at the Pentagon. "There's hundreds of folks, and we don't know the makeup, but they're certainly not friendly."
As many as 4,000 to 5,000 foreign fighters are in Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials and Afghan sources, and they are gathering near what became a major battleground shortly after U.S.-backed Afghan forces succeeded in ousting the Taliban militia from power in early December.
The area has numerous caves and underground facilities and was believed to be the location of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is blamed for the September 11 terrorist attacks. Bin Laden has not been found.
Gen. Rosa said the military has been tracking the fighters for several months. "We've observed. We've gathered intelligence," he said. "But to this date, we haven't acted, and that will be up to General Franks when he decides that." Gen. Tommy Franks is commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the region.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said that despite efforts to wipe out remaining pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda resistance, some fighters remain at large. "There are still more, and we're going to pursue them," she said.
U.S. officials also said Army Special Forces troops in the same region have begun training military forces of the interim Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is set to dispatch troops to Yemen, on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, to provide training in anti-terrorism operations for the Yemeni armed forces.
The training will be part of expanding U.S. military operations around the world in the battle against international terrorism. About 5,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, and some 500 additional military personnel are in the Philippines.
U.S. military forces also are expected to be sent to the Republic of Georgia, south of Russia. Al Qaeda terrorists who fled Afghanistan have been reported in a northeastern portion of Georgia called the Pankisi gorge.
The area is near the southern Russian republic of Chechnya, where Moscow's military has been battling Islamic separatists.
Mrs. Clarke told reporters that, as of yesterday, there had been no formal decision on the troop deployment to Yemen.
"It's very much a work in progress," she said. "The elements of what we do with them [are] to be determined."
Terrorists attacked the destroyer USS Cole in Aden harbor, Yemen, in October 2000, killing 17 sailors and nearly sinking the ship as it refueled. The suicide bombers later were linked to the al Qaeda network.
Government officials in Yemen said that up to 100 U.S. troops would be sent to the country, which has been a refuge in the past for al Qaeda terrorists.
Pentagon officials said the order to execute what was described as a "training mission" in Yemen had not been issued but was expected soon.
In addition to training, the support would include equipment and advice for Yemeni military operations against the al Qaeda network.
President Bush said yesterday that the Yemeni government was "responding" to U.S. efforts to track down terrorists.
"I'm not going to talk about ongoing operations, but I will tell you that wherever we find an al Qaeda presence, we will work with the government to root them out. In other words, this war against terror is far broader than Afghanistan," Mr. Bush said.
Gen. Rosa said the U.S. government recently put out a list of wanted terrorists, including seven or eight who were detained in Yemen. "So we feel that there may be al Qaeda in that country," he said.
In Gardez, Afghan officials also said that al Qaeda and Taliban forces were regrouping in the mountains of eastern Paktia province, the Associated Press reported.
The foreign fighters are supported by various groups, including terrorists from Kashmir, Islamic militants in Pakistan and some former Pakistani intelligence officials.
"We have Chechens, Arabs, Pakistanis in the mountains," said Ziarat Gul Mangal, deputy intelligence chief of Paktia province. He said that one group of fighters, which included Chechens and Arabs, was spotted in the mountains near Gardez.
"They had just started to reorganize there," Mr. Mangal told the Associated Press, noting that "we found weapons, a lot of weapons."
The regrouping effort is said to be led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the former Taliban minister of frontier affairs and a top figure wanted by the United States.
Haqqani was close to the al Qaeda network, and in an interview with a Pakistani newspaper in October said China was supplying unspecified support to the Taliban militia. Press reports from the region have said the Taliban militia ordered its remaining fighters to go underground inside Afghanistan and conduct guerrilla operations against U.S. forces.

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