- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 18, 2002

BAGHRAM, Afghanistan Backed by U.S. air power, some 1,000 coalition troops spread out into mountainous eastern Afghanistan yesterday to find and fight suspected al Qaeda or Taliban soldiers who had fired on an Australian patrol.

Brig. Roger Lane, the top British commander in Afghanistan, said the targeted assembly of fighters in Paktia province was "a substantial enemy force."

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Bryan Hilferty said later the coalition believes there are about 100 al Qaeda or Taliban fighters in the area.

No coalition fighters were hurt during Thursday's attack on an Australian special-forces patrol, Brig. Lane said, though some suspected al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers were killed.

"Our ability to respond rapidly to such attacks will serve as a reminder that the coalition will not tolerate such activity and we will hunt the terrorists relentlessly," Brig. Lane said from Bagram, the main allied base north of Kabul.

The 1,000 mostly British coalition soldiers in the newest offensive, named Operation Condor, near the city of Khost is large enough to overwhelm opposing fighters, Maj. Hilferty said.

"The best way to ensure people don't shoot at you is to have an overwhelming force. We have no desire to get into a fair fight with al Qaeda," he said.

Troops are fighting in the mountains at altitudes of 8,000 feet, officials said.

Maj. Hilferty said American forces had not deployed ground troops, but were backing the British-led mission with air power. He said AC-130s had been summoned to assist the Australians on Thursday night, and opened fire on the enemy.

Meanwhile, local security officials said at least 10 Afghan tribesmen feuding over land were killed in eastern Afghanistan when U.S. planes bombarded their positions after shooting erupted on the ground.

Security chief Sur Gul said the Sabari and the Balkhiel tribes were skirmishing over ownership of trees near their villages about 30 miles north of Khost.

Shooting erupted Thursday night, Mr. Gul said, and U.S. planes began bombing shortly afterward.

He said the American bombardment killed at least 10 persons, adding: "We don't know why the U.S. planes fired."

The Afghan Islamic Press agency, quoting unidentified officials from Khost, said the U.S. air assault occurred after wedding guests in Balkhiel fired automatic rifles into the air in celebration.

Maj. Hilferty defended the bombing, saying the planes had been fired upon first.

"We're not perfect. I can't say for sure that we did not fire at the wedding and we did not fire at these two tribes. But I can say we fired on a ridge line in an uninhabited area. They were actively pursing us. People were trying to kill us," he said.

On Monday British-led forces wrapped up a two-week search operation in eastern Afghanistan, saying they had dealt a significant blow to al Qaeda's ability to mount terrorist strikes by blowing up a huge ammunition dump in Paktia province.

At Bagram, 20 more British soldiers have been struck by a contagious but still unidentified illness, bringing the total number infected to 38. The outbreak began Sunday, and several men have been evacuated to Europe.

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