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Monday, 11 March, 2002, 21:34 GMT
Afghan forces gather for final push
US soldier cleans weapon at Bagram air base, Afghanistan
The US is bringing up fresh troops
Hundreds of Afghan fighters are reported to be massing in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan for a further assault on the last remaining al-Qaeda and Taleban forces in the area.

American officials think there are fewer than 200 enemy fighters left in the mountains south of the city of Gardez.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said a great many al-Qaeda fighters had been killed, and several captured.

After nightfall US military aircraft again bombed the region.

Correspondents in the area say a convoy of 12 tanks and about 1,000 Afghan soldiers were moving towards the frontline at Shah-e-Kot to reinforce US forces and their Afghan allies.

Meanwhile a senior Afghan military official was quoted as saying thousands of government troops were going to a number of other areas near Kabul to head off any fresh action by enemy fighters who have regrouped.

Dwindling rebel numbers

For the second day running, US helicopters returned US troops from the frontline to their base at Bagram airport, near Kabul.

The more we back them into a corner, the more desperate they will become

US military official

Smaller numbers were reported to be preparing to go into the combat zone. US commanders have said the major part of Operation Anaconda had been completed.

After 10 days of fighting near the city of Gardez in Paktia province, the al-Qaeda and Taleban forces appear to have been splintered into small pockets of resistance.

Enlarge image Click for a detailed map of the Gardez operation

US officers believe there are still up to 200 militants left in the Shah-e-Kot valley.

Previous estimates put the number of enemy fighters at about 500, with the same number killed in battle during the past week.

They also said there had been no "sustained or accurate enemy fire" in four days.

War 'Afghan-style'

One official who gave his name only as Lieutenant-Colonel Mark said the remaining rebels were ready to die and they were becoming desperate.

"The more we back them into a corner, the more desperate they will become," he added.

An Afghan commander with the reinforcements arriving in the Shah-e-Kot area on Monday said the time had come "for war Afghan-style".

"We know the terrain better, and we're faster," Commander Burhanuddin said.

Tactics in cave warfare included penetrating caves at night and forcing enemy fighters to surrender by cutting off water and food supply lines, according to Commander Burhannudin.

Afghan government soldier
New offensive "within days"
Another Afghan commander said a final push against the militants would probably be made within the next two days.

Reports have spoken of tensions between the reinforcements from Kabul and local troops in the mainly Pashtun province, but the US military denied there was an ethnic divide.

There were few Tajiks among the reinforcements who were mostly Pashtun themselves, said Lieutenant-Colonel Mark.

The US officer praised the Afghan troops' combat performance and the leadership of local warlord Zia Lodin, saying they had suffered heavy casualties.

Troubleshooting

A senior Afghan defence ministry official, who declined to be named, said enemy fighters were regrouping in Wardak, Ghazni and Khost as well as Paktia.

"We have intelligence that remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida are armed and still active in these regions," the official, a top aide to Defence Minister General Mohammad Fahim, told Reuters news agency.

"Up to 5,000 troops will be deployed and stationed in these areas within the next two days," he said.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Susannah Price
"The conditions on the mountains are extreme"
Interim leader of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai
"We are not going to set a timeframe"
The BBC's Tim Willcox
"Some of these troops have now been pulled out"
See also:

11 Mar 02 | South Asia
Taleban a spent force - Karzai
08 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan test for US ground warfare
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