- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (UPI) — A U.S. AH64 Apache helicopter was fired upon Wednesday near the caves southwestern Afghanistan where coalition forces searched for Taliban and al Qaida holdouts.

"There was no damage to equipment or personnel," said Lt. Col. Michael Shields, the operations officer for Coalition Task Force 82.

CTF82, which includes U.S. and Afghan soldiers, is conducting the operation against elements of the Taliban and al Qaida in southwestern Afghanistan.

"The Apache that was fired at returned to the area in which it took fire to do an assessment with another aircraft but did not find any enemy evidence that wounded enemy had been in the caves," Shields said.

Giving an update on the situation north of Spinbuldak in the vicinity of the Adi Ghar Mountains, Shields said CTF82 had conducted search-and-attack operations and cave clearing. There are approximately 300 personnel on the ground.

CTF82 has used ground forces to identify 27 caves. It has cleared 12 caves and is working on clearing two more. One cave was destroyed by joint munitions. Supplies such as food, water, blankets, fuel, and mules, were found, Shields said.

U.S. military officials at Bagram said they postponed a pool media mission to the combat area due to inclement weather.

The battle near Spinbuldak, which began Monday, has been described as so far the fiercest in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in December 2001.

Earlier, Col. Roger King, a spokesman for the U.S. army told United Press International from the Bagram airbase near Kabul, coalition forces had searched 30 caves and captured six small caches of weapons.

King said the coalition forces, that include U.S. troops and soldiers of local Gov. Gul Agha, also seized a large cache in a place called Qulat that contained 1,000 rounds of 82 mm and 107 mm mortars.

He said the coalition forces were now searching the Adi Ghar Mountain, where U.S. Special Forces received enemy fire Monday. They returned fire, killed one of the three fighters and detained the remaining two.

Later, one of the detainees told interrogators they were associated with Afghan warlord Gulbadin Hekmatyar and that 80 other fighters were hiding in the nearby caves.

The information led to a major operation by the U.S. forces and their Afghan allies.

King said the coalition forces were searching "all the caves where the enemy might be hiding and there are a lot of caves in that area."

He said the coalition's "air capability" was ready to assist the troops on the ground but the air force has not been used since Monday.

"There's no more fighting now, but the search for men and weapons continues," he said.

Earlier, U.S. Central Command said earlier at least 18 enemy personnel were killed, but later said that number was no longer accurate. There were no U.S. casualties.

Earlier reports said U.S. forces, in a 12-hour assault with overwhelming air power, had destroyed an enemy stronghold in Afghanistan near the former Taliban headquarters, bringing an end to fighting in the area.

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

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.

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