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Saturday, 23 March, 2002, 16:06 GMT
Anaconda 'killed off' key militants
US and Canadian troops scour the Shah-i-Kot region for militants
Hunt for remaining militants "more complicated"
The latest US-led operation in Afghanistan impaired the al-Qaeda network by killing off its middle level of leadership, US military officials have said.

The US believes the operation, codenamed Anaconda, left some of Osama Bin Laden's "most experienced fighters and trainers" dead, Lieutenant Colonel David Gray told reporters at Bagram air base on Saturday.

Chinook helicopter in the Shah-i-Kot mountains
More attacks are expected as the weather improves
US officials claim hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters were killed in the 17 day offensive near the eastern town of Gardez - the biggest ground battle in the conflict so far.

Some Afghan commanders have said such claims are inflated.

US officials admit that few bodies have been found, but say this is because most were blown to pieces in the operation's intense bombing raids.

'Repositioned'

They also say some al-Qaeda fighters managed to escape during the battle to flush the fighters out of a complex network of caves in the Shah-i-Kot region.

It is clear from the decision last week to send 1,700 British specialist combat troops to the region that more fighting is expected.

Soldiers hold positions during Operation Anaconda
Operation Anaconda was the biggest ground battle yet
Lieutenant Colonel Jasey Briley, the intelligence chief in the US-led coalition, said the militants who had slipped away during the offensive had "repositioned" themselves.

"They have a tendency to go into caves," he said, adding that they tended to blend into local populations where they found support.

Colonel Gray said that the hunt for the remaining fighters would be more complicated if they broke up into smaller units, the French news agency AFP reported.

"Obviously it's much better if you can get the enemy to coagulate in one big spot," the agency quoted him as saying.

British troops

The first batch of British Royal Marine Commandos is due to arrive within a week, a spokesman said on Saturday.

No details have been given of the operations the troops, the largest British contingent deployed for combat since the Gulf War, will be involved in.

Some of them are known to be trained in specialist cold weather warfare techniques.

The US officials said they were expecting the remaining militants to launch more attacks as the harsh Afghan winter gives way to warmer weather.

Colonel Gray said it was time to "get their leadership looking over their shoulder, worrying more about their own personal survival than about functioning in the network".

Detainees' claims

However, a raid this week showed the difficulties of launching attacks on suspected small-scale Taleban and al-Qaeda hide-outs.

Around 30 Afghans seized from a security post near the village of Sangesar around 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Kandahar last Sunday were released on Thursday.

US officials said they had determined the men were not Taleban or al-Qaeda members.

The men told the Associated Press they had been kicked and abused at a US detention centre at a US base outside Kandahar.

US military spokesman Major Ignacio Perez said detainees at the base were well treated.

See also:

21 Mar 02 | South Asia
US forces kill 10 in Afghanistan
19 Mar 02 | South Asia
US declares Anaconda a 'success'
19 Mar 02 | South Asia
Bush warns of battles ahead
11 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan forces gather for final push
13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Discontent in Gardez
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