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Sunday, 10 March, 2002, 07:36 GMT
US steps up assault on al-Qaeda
US soldiers warm themselves at a camp at Bagram airbase
US-led forces are pursuing battle-hardened guerrillas
US jets are pounding al-Qaeda and Taleban positions in Afghanistan's eastern mountains, taking advantage of improved weather conditions.

American officials say US-led forces - including Afghan reinforcements - are preparing for a final push against the fighters in their mountain caves and bunkers.

Wounded Afghan fighter flown to Kabul
The fighting has been some of the fiercest since October
Driving snow and high winds in eastern Afghanistan had slowed Operation Anaconda, which began nine days ago south of the town of Gardez, in Paktia province.

Afghan fighters said the militants were running low on ammunition but the US-led operation had also been slowed by land mines.

Clear skies on Sunday enabled helicopters to resupply 2,000 coalition troops operating in icy mountains soaring to 3,630 metres (12,000 feet).

US army spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty said US forces had not come under any sustained fire in the last 72 hours.

"Hopefully it means we've wiped them out," he said.

To help defeat the militants, the Afghan defence ministry has sent about 1,000 extra troops to the region.

These consist mainly of Tajik troops of the former Northern Alliance, which has caused tension with local Pashtun leaders, who say their own forces are capable of defeating the Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters.

The BBC's Susannah Price says that if the Americans want to further increase the number of Afghan soldiers in the area they will have to tread warily, to ensure that ethnic divisions do not rise to the surface and threaten their operations.

Dispute over tactics

US Vice-President Dick Cheney has admitted that it could take up to 10 more days to dislodge the al-Qaeda and Taleban forces.

Map
Hundreds of entrenched militants are said to have been killed in the assault, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the Afghan campaign.

At least eight American and seven Afghan Government soldiers have been killed.

US officials say the militants - believed to include Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks - are completely surrounded.

But Afghan commanders have warned they could still slip away under cover of the snow.

An Afghan commander quoted by the Associated Press said no major al-Qaeda figures were believed to be among the militants, although an Egyptian identified only as Sheikh Saleh was thought to be in the area.

In a separate development, a French newspaper says France has refused to allow its warplanes to attack some of the targets assigned to it by American commanders in eastern Afghanistan.

The newspaper, Le Monde, quotes unnamed French military officials, as saying that the French and Americans had a difference of opinion over some bombing missions because of the risk to the civilian population.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Susannah Price
"They continue to resist from their network of hideouts"
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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