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Friday, 8 March, 2002, 11:49 GMT
Afghan mountain battle rages on
US forces load CH-47 Chinook helicopter with ammunition
Supplies are rushed into battle as the weather worsens
US-led forces say they have killed a large number of al-Qaeda militants overnight but others are still fiercely defending high mountain positions in eastern Afghanistan.

A 1,000-strong force of pro-US Afghan fighters headed for the eastern city of Gardez from Kabul on Friday, backed by 10 tanks.

This is a ground-centric battle. That is why we have boots on the ground

US Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Smith

US officials say the al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters in the remote snow-covered mountains near Gardez are completely surrounded.

But Afghan commanders warn that the guerrillas - who show no sign of surrendering - could slip away under the cover of snow as the weather deteriorates.

Sandstorms and high winds grounded some aircraft and threatened to disrupt the US-led air and ground assault.

About 2,000 Afghan and American troops, and special forces from various countries, have been conducting Operation Anaconda since last Friday, backed by massive air strikes.

Fierce resistance

US military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Smith said there were "lots of al-Qaeda casualties" in fighting overnight.

Enlarge image Click for a detailed map of the Gardez operation

But he described the militants as "professional soldiers" - hardened fighters "of the type who executed the events of September 11".

And he said US forces had spotted "some infiltration of additional fighters in small numbers" to join the guerrillas.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Thursday that it was difficult to know how many militants were still alive.

He said the guerrillas were very well dug-in and not short of supplies, defending caves and bunkers on mountains rising to 3,000 metres (10,000 feet).

But he voiced confidence that the offensive "should end - I would think it would end - sometime this weekend or next week".

Wounded Afghan fighter flown to Kabul
The fighting has been some of the fiercest since October
"We know for a fact that an awful lot of people have been trying to get out and haven't been making it," he added.

The Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters - who are said to include Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks - have reportedly mounted classic guerrilla-style resistance.

Small groups of fighters, four or five strong, dart out of caves and bunkers, rain down fire on advancing American and allied Afghan troops and then disappear back into their hideouts.

Altitude sickness

At least eight American and seven Afghan Government soldiers have been killed since the operation began.

Several US troops have been treated for altitude sickness after spending days in the thin air and freezing cold.

B-52 above mountains near Gardez
B-52 heavy bombers have been pounding dug-in positions
US President George W Bush has expressed confidence in the outcome of the battle, a sentiment echoed by interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.

"We are determined to finish them and send them to hell," said Mr Karzai. "It may take one or two days or more, but they are finished."

The US-led military campaign began after Afghanistan's then Taleban government refused to hand over its ally, al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who is accused of masterminding the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.

Bin Laden and Taleban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar are not thought to be in the area of the current battle.

US military officials say the Gardez fighting is unlikely to be the last battle of the war, given that thousands of Taleban fighters are still at large in Afghanistan.

The BBC's Adam Brookes reports from Gardez
"More than 2000 American and allied forces are on the ground"
See also:

08 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan test for US ground warfare
07 Mar 02 | South Asia
UN seeks to end Afghan abuses
06 Mar 02 | South Asia
Al-Qaeda may use internet to regroup
07 Mar 02 | South Asia
In pictures: Operation Anaconda
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