- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 28 (UPI) — U.S. forces, in a 12-hour assault with overwhelming air power, destroyed an enemy stronghold in Afghanistan near the former Taliban headquarters, bringing an end to fighting in the area, military officials said Tuesday.

"About 250 plus U.S. and Afghan forces are now searching the caves (where the enemy troops were hiding)," A U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Ray Shepherd told United Press International by telephone from Tampa, Fla.

Shepherd said troops loyal to the governor of Kandahar region, in Afghanistan's southwest, were participating in the search along with U.S. Special Forces.

Gov. Gul Agha now controls the region, which was formerly the headquarters and main support base of the Taliban militia.

U.S. Central Command said earlier at least 18 enemy personnel were killed, and there were no U.S. casualties. But Shepherd said the enemy casualty figure was "no longer accurate… We are searching the caves now and will give more information after the search is complete." He confirmed that there were no U.S. casualties.

The caves fell to U.S. ground forces after a 12-hour pounding with U.S. B-1B bombers, AC-130 gunships, and coalition F-16 fighter-bombers as well as Apache helicopters, another CENTCOM spokesman in Florida, Cmdr. Dan Gage told UPI.

More than 9,000 U.S. troops are still based in Afghanistan, helping the new government and training a national Afghan army.

Gage earlier told UPI the fighting "has apparently ended but we are waiting for confirmation."

Talking from Bagram by telephone, Swan said all planes and helicopters that took part in the operation were flown from the Bagram base and U.S. forces based in neighboring Pakistan were not used. They have now returned to their base, said Shepherd.

The fighting started early Monday when some soldiers of the U.S. Special Forces came under small arms fire while clearing a compound 8 miles north of Spinbuldak.

Spinbuldak is an Afghan town bordering the southern Pakistani province of Baluchistan and is part of the Kandahar region, which was the headquarters of the Taliban movement that ruled Afghanistan from 1995 till 2001.

Although the Taliban movement was defeated by the U.S. forces in December 2001, thousands of Taliban soldiers spread across Afghanistan seeking refuge in small tribal pockets. Some of them recently have been recruited by Gulbadin Hekmatyar, an Afghan warlord who entered Afghanistan last year after he was expelled from neighboring Iran.

It was a bitter infighting between Hekmatyar's forces and those of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani that destroyed Kabul in the early 1990s and allowed the Taliban movement to establish itself in Afghanistan.

Since returning to Afghanistan, Hekmatyar has pledged to work with the Taliban and al Qaida fugitives to force the United States to leave Afghanistan. His supporters say he has signed a deal with the Taliban, a claim that cannot be independently confirmed.

Gage said U.S. forces retaliated to the enemy fire, killing one, wounding another and detaining the third.

The detainee informed his captors that there were approximately 80 armed men several miles north of Spinbuldak.

"Subsequently, AH-64F Apaches were called in to attempt to verify the information," said Gage. "The helicopters were fired on by ground forces and returned fire."

U.S. military officials brought in the quick reaction force from the 82nd Airborne Division, who located the enemy forces near a series of caves.

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