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Monday, 4 March, 2002, 11:48 GMT
Heavy raids on Afghan militants
smoke above Shah-e-Kot mountain range during US raid
Jets are pounding caves high in the mountains
US bombers have resumed heavy raids on suspected al-Qaeda and Taleban positions in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

French Mirage 2000-D jets are flying in support of the bombers, on their first missions in the US-led campaign.

Anti-Taleban fighters in Paktia
Afghan fighters form the bulk of the assault force
A US military spokesman, Major Ralph Mills, said several hundred militants were concentrated in the Shah-e-Kot mountains, 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Gardez in Paktia province.

Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway contributed forces to the offensive, the US military said.

It is believed to be the biggest allied offensive in the five-month anti-terror war in Afghanistan.

Air strikes continued throughout Monday morning, with villagers standing on their roofs and the tops of their cars to see the B-52s in action, the BBC's Susannah Price reports.

Click here for a guide to US military options

A US soldier and three pro-US Afghan troops have been killed while the militants are said to have suffered heavy casualties since the offensive began on Saturday.

High-altitude battle

US heavy bombers and AC-130 gunships have been targeting the militants' vehicles, mortar positions and caves, Major Mills said.

Saturday's ground attack - in snow-covered mountains rising to 3,480 metres (11,600 feet) above sea level - apparently failed to dislodge the militants.

US military officials said there were "intense" clashes as a US-led force of 1,500 Afghan allies, US special forces and troops from the Army's 101st Airborne assault forces encountered artillery, mortar and heavy machine-gun fire.

Afghan commanders said they expected ground operations to resume in the next few days.

Afghan allies made up the bulk of the assault force, advancing from three directions, Afghan sources said.

A French air force spokesman confirmed that Mirages based in Kyrgyzstan were flying in a supporting role. He said they "can be used in bombings at any moment depending on what is needed".

On the ground, German soldiers are most likely involved in transporting the wounded to hospital, according to Helmut Wieczorek, Chair of the German parliamentary defence committee.

Khost rocket strike

Bombing was also reported on the Kharwar mountain range in the neighbouring Logar province, where pro-US Afghan forces were said to be battling Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters.

In Khost, 70km (45 miles) east of Gardez, US troops stationed at an airport were attacked by rockets and small arms fire early on Monday.

A spokesman for the Khost Shura (Council) said the US forces returned fire and air strikes were called in, but there were no immediate details of casualties.

New weapons

US planes are using new "thermobaric" bombs in an effort to flush out the militants in the mountains.

Afghans read propaganda leaflets
Warning: "Surrender militants or die"
The 2,000-pound (907-kg) laser-guided weapons are filled with a special explosive mixture that creates a high-pressure blast, driving all of the oxygen out of a cave and potentially choking those inside.

They were tested by the US in December and officials said in January that they would be rushed to Afghanistan for the campaign to root out supporters of Saudi-born dissident Osama Bin Laden.

Russia has prompted international protests by using similar fuel-air bombs in the republic of Chechnya.

The mountains around Gardez have been a hiding place for Afghan warriors since anti-Soviet guerrillas used them as a base for their fight against Soviet troops in the 1980s.

The BBC's Susannah Price in Afghanistan
"The Americans are working closely with their Afghan alies"
US Navy Cmdr Dave Culler
"The primary mission remains to eliminate pockets of al-Quaeda and Taleban"
See also:

04 Mar 02 | Europe
German special forces in action
02 Mar 02 | South Asia
Picture gallery: New Afghan army
05 Feb 02 | South Asia
Afghanistan's security nightmare
23 Dec 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Al-Qaeda threat lives on
27 Nov 01 | South Asia
Analysis: What next for al-Qaeda?
07 Oct 01 | Americas
Guide to military strength
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