- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

At least nine American soldiers have been killed and 40 wounded in the largest offensive in the five-month war on terrorism, as U.S.-led forces yesterday entered the fourth day of "fierce" fighting with al Qaeda and Taliban in the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said enemy forces had sustained "much larger numbers of killed and wounded." He said the assault, code-named Operation Anaconda, could continue for days near Gardez, where the terrorists have regrouped over several weeks.
Another Pentagon official estimated that at least 100 al Qaeda or Taliban fighters had died, perhaps many more.
"We intend to continue the operations until those al Qaeda and Taliban who remain either surrender or are killed," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "The choice is theirs. We have ground forces in position to check any large-scale effort to escape, and we will continue to add pressure until they have been taken care of."
The terrorists are fighting from caves with small arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, although no aircraft so far have been hit by missiles, said Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The latest U.S. combat casualties occurred when two MH-47 twin-rotor Chinook helicopters came under ground fire as they tried to drop off reconnaissance teams in the area.
One of the helicopters crashed landed or was shot down. A second MH-47 landed nearby and unloaded its troops. The troops immediately came under small-arms fire and had to be rescued.
Army Maj. Gen. F.L. Hagenbeck, commanding the 10th Mountain Division, said one U.S. soldier was held captive briefly during yesterday's battle, which he described as a "meat grinder."
The U.S. soldier was captured by al Qaeda fighters after he failed to get aboard one of the choppers as it took off under fire, Gen. Hagenbeck told Newhouse News Service. A rescue operation was organized and also came under heavy fire. "They were not going to leave their buddy behind," Gen. Hagenbeck said of the U.S. forces.
After an intense battle, the rescue force returned with the body of the soldier who had been captured by al Qaeda. "We gave everything we had to get those guys out," Gen. Hagenbeck told Newhouse.
The U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who was killed near Gardez on Saturday was identified yesterday. Army Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman, 34, of Wade, N.C., was killed "as the result of enemy fire," the Pentagon said in a statement.
President Bush mourned the combat deaths.
"I am saddened by the loss of life," he told reporters in Minneapolis. But Mr. Bush also said: "I am just as determined now to fulfill this mission."
Of the al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, Mr. Bush said: "These are killers; these are murderers.
"I have said repeatedly, we are in a dangerous phase of this war."
U.S. warplanes dropped scores of bombs on the mountains in the region around Gardez known as Shah-e-Kot that were aimed at fleeing al Qaeda fighters, the Associated Press reported from Surmad, Afghan-istan.
"In one minute, I counted 15 bombs," said Rehmahe Shah, a security guard at the intelligence unit in Gardez.
In Khost, near the Afghan border with Pakistan, U.S. troops at an air base came under small-arms fire and called in air strikes, a military spokesman said.
Gen. Franks said the assault covers an area about 60 to 70 square miles. In addition to al Qaeda terrorists operating in groups ranging in size from three to 15 fighters, the enemy fighters include Chechens and Uzbeks, he said.
Up to 900 Army Special Forces troops are deployed near Gardez, along with some 200 special-operations troops from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway, he said.
"The mission of that task force is to destroy all al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in and around this objective area," Gen. Franks said in Tampa, Fla., where his Central Command headquarters is located.
Troops from the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division and the 101st Airborne Division make up the main attacking forces, Gen. Franks said. About 1,000 Afghan fighters are involved in blocking the retreat of enemy forces from the area.
The first elements of the 2,000-strong force of U.S., Afghan and allied military forces began assaults in the region late Friday and were forced to retreat in early fighting before mounting a counterattack, Mr. Rumsfeld said.
The battle of Gardez is taking place in mountains ranging up to 12,000 feet in altitude in frigid conditions, taxing both the troops and the aircraft ferrying them into action, Pentagon officials said.
"We believe there are several hundred al Qaeda fighters holed up in the mountains, in the valleys and the cave complexes," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "They're well dug in, well reinforced, and apparently have lots of weapons."
As of yesterday, Gen Myers said, more than 350 bombs had been dropped from long-range bombers and carrier-based aircraft. Up to four AC-130 Specter gunships also have joined the battle. The AC-130s are outfitted with artillery and heavy machine guns.
Large numbers of transport helicopters and attack helicopters are involved in the operations.
U.S. warplanes also dropped a new weapon called a thermobaric bomb onto a large cave complex. The bomb was designed to kill enemy forces inside with a huge explosive wave.
Gen. Myers said the combat forces that mounted the assault had monitored the massing of enemy fighters for weeks and were fully prepared when the mission began.
"This is very difficult terrain to operate in," Gen. Myers said. "The enemy is a very determined enemy, willing to die for their cause. Our brave men and women are over there to see that we take them out and we keep them from pursuing other acts of terrorism in the world. That's what they do."
Mr. Rumsfeld said the pro-U.S. Afghan forces "took heavy fire" during the initial assault Friday, causing several casualties and the loss of some vehicles.
Asked to explain the highest casualties in the confllict to date, Gen. Franks said military operations in the country were expected to become "more dangerous" as pressure was applied on al Qaeda and the Taliban. "And that's the phase of the operation we're in right now," he said.
The current battle differs from the assault on al Qaeda fighters in nearby Tora Bora in late December and early January. That battle involved primarily Afghan forces loyal to the Karzai government with only few U.S. and allied troops.
The Gardez battle is primarily a U.S.-led assault, the first major ground-combat operation since the war began on Oct. 7.

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