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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 04:54 GMT
Bad weather slows Afghan battle
Afghan fighters on their way to Gardez
Extreme conditions have hampered the operation
Bad weather has brought a lull to the fighting in the frozen mountains of eastern Afghanistan where a US-led force has been trying to dislodge Islamic militants all week.

Only sporadic fire was reported in the region around the city of Gardez as US aircraft were grounded by driving snow and high winds.

But one US defence official said the weather began lifting on Friday evening and added that the cold and the military offensive had worn down remaining al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters.

Tanks on the road to Gardez
Reinforcements were seen heading towards Gardez
President George W Bush warned on Friday that the battle would not be the last fought by US forces conducting the war on terror in Afghanistan.

"It is a sign of what is going to happen for a while," the US leader said during a visit to Florida, adding that "dangerous missions" still lay ahead.

'Hundreds' killed

The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said the weather had been "just terrible".

He was speaking on the seventh day of Operation Anaconda which has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the Afghan campaign.

US military spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty said al-Qaeda forces had been forced to retreat into caves because of the weather.

"They appear to be pretty much hunkered down," he said.

Hundreds of entrenched militants are said to have been killed.

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

Fresh troops

The interim government in Kabul has dispatched reinforcements to the area, the BBC's Susannah Price reports.

Wounded Afghan fighter flown to Kabul
The fighting has been some of the fiercest since October
She saw hundreds of soldiers heading south towards Gardez along with tanks and heavy artillery.

They are led by an experienced field commander, Gul Haider, who said he had 1,000 men and 10 armoured vehicles at his disposal.

About 2,000 US and Afghan troops along with special forces from various countries are already in the battle zone.

US officials say the militants are completely surrounded but Afghan commanders have warned they could still slip away under cover of the snow.

The militants are said to be well dug in and not short of supplies, defending caves and bunkers on mountains rising to 3,000 metres.

They are said to include Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks.

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.

The BBC's Adam Brookes
"There is no sign that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are going to give up"
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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