- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

QALAT, Afghanistan — Afghan and U.S. troops overran three suspected Taliban positions and pinned down fighters in a cave yesterday as fighting raged in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. military and an Afghan commander said.

American bombing echoed through the mountains as the troops tried to root out hundreds of Taliban holdouts who have offered fierce resistance for the past week.

Coalition forces clashed with numerous groups of five to 10 fighters firing small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, U.S. military spokesman Col. Rodney Davis said.

The troops had cornered a group of insurgents in a cave and were attacking it yesterday afternoon using small-arms fire, artillery and air support.

There were no reported coalition casualties in the latest fighting in Zabul province’s Dai Chopan district, Col. Davis said. He had no details on Taliban casualties.

A senior Taliban commander told Reuters New Agency in an interview yesterday that the ousted militia group has sent 300 more fighters to Zabul to help battle Afghan government and U.S.-led troops.

Maulvi Faizullah, a senior Taliban commander involved in the fighting, said a fresh wave of militants had been deployed in Dai Chopan to join up to 1,000 others who have been fighting in the area for the past eight days.

The reinforcements were being led by former Taliban Education Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, Mr. Faizullah said, and they had been sent from Khost province in the east bordering Pakistan.

U.S. warplanes and helicopter gunships hammered Taliban positions around Sairo Gar mountain before dawn. When Afghan troops moved in later, they found the Taliban had abandoned three positions, leaving behind bedding and turbans, said Gen. Haji Saifullah Khan, the main Afghan commander in the battle area.

The U.S. military has been involved in the fighting since it began about eight days ago. Since Saturday, they have dubbed their role in the battle as “Operation Mountain Viper.”

The military said U.S. special operations forces and soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division were involved along with close air support. The military would not say how many U.S. soldiers were engaged in the fighting, though Afghan officials have put the number at several hundred.

One American soldier died Friday when he fell during a night combat mission. Two other U.S. soldiers died in a 90-minute gun battle Sunday in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. Four suspected Taliban were killed in that fighting.

Those deaths bring to 35 the number of U.S. troops killed in action in Afghanistan, in addition to 162 that have been wounded, according to the U.S. military.

Afghan presidential spokesman Jawid Luddin said that more than 500 troops of the fledgling Afghan national army had been deployed in Zabul. So far, most of the fighting on the government side has been done by provincial militia forces.

Insurgents have meanwhile been carrying out a series of attacks near the mountain battle, mainly on Afghan soldiers, apparently intended to distract government forces from the main battle, said provincial intelligence chief Khalil Hotak.

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