- The Washington Times - Friday, March 8, 2002

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday said the battle against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in northeast Afghanistan could end as early as this weekend.

"Some time's passed, and it strikes me that it should end … sometime this weekend or next week," Mr. Rumsfeld said after remarks to a group of Pentagon employees.

Mr. Rumsfeld said enemy fighters have tried and failed to leave the mountainous region near Gardez since the U.S.-led attack, Operation Anaconda, began seven days ago, and have shown "no inclination to surrender."

Maj. Bryan Hilfery, a spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division, said up to 100 of the enemy fighters were killed on Wednesday.

"We're continuing to bolster our efforts, and units are continuing to maneuver in fire today, clearing ridgelines, caves and pockets of al-Qaeda resistance," Maj. Hilfery told reporters at Bagram air base, north of the Afghan capital Kabul.

Bombing and ground assault strikes succeeded in destroying some of the terrorist forces' weapons, including mortars, small cannons, rocket-propelled grenades and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, he said.

The Pentagon estimates that 100 to 200 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have been killed. Eight U.S. military personnel have been killed in the fighting.

U.S. B-52 bombers and allied bombers yesterday attacked targets in the Shah-e-Kot region, where Afghans estimate up to 2,000 al Qaeda and Taliban could be dug into the mountains.

"We do know there are very deep caves and tunnels, that they are exceedingly well dug-in, that air power works to a certain extent," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "They're also well-supplied. They seem not to be short of ammunition and supplies."

Pentagon estimates have ranged from 200 to 800 foreign fighters, including Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis.

Bad weather hampered military operations in the area as sandstorms and high winds grounded helicopters, Associated Press reported from Gardez.

Maj. Gen. Richard Cody, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., said the fighting near Gardez has been fierce and an additional 200 troops will be deployed to Afghanistan.

"This is the largest, most intense direct combat engagement with an enemy force the 101st Airborne Division has been involved in since Vietnam," Gen. Cody said.

Mr. Rumsfeld said the border of Afghanistan is open and enemy fighters can pass easily in small numbers back and forth into Afghanistan.

"We have used a lot of intelligence assets to try to monitor what's taking place," he said. "We have had some help from Uzbekistan and from Tajikistan. The Iranian border is as porous as it ever has been, going both ways."

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