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Wednesday, 13 March, 2002, 16:36 GMT
Allied forces pursue al-Qaeda fugitives
Afghan troops in the Arma mountains
Alliance troops have captured the militants' stronghold
US and Afghan forces have raided villages in eastern Afghanistan in search of Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters after capturing one of the militants' last-known strongholds, US officials said.

The Afghan Ministry of Defence said alliance troops were chasing the remnants of the rebel force after taking over the valley of Shahi Kot on Wednesday following a two-week US-led campaign.

We have cleaned up Shahi Kot and killed most of them [the rebels]

Major General Karamuddin, Afghan Defence Ministry
"We have finished our operation. We have cleaned up Shahi Kot and killed most of them [the rebels], and the rest have fled," said Major General Karamuddin.

As the hunt for fugitives continued, Afghan interim leader Hamed Karzai, on a visit to Russia, urged Afghan expatriates to return home.

Fewer than 20 militants have been captured since US and Afghan forces launched Operation Anaconda on 1 March, a US military spokesman said.

The number of rebels still in the area, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) south of Gardez, capital of the eastern Paktia province, was "in the range of 100", said US Major Bryan Hilferty.

Major Hilferty said more than 1,500 troops - most of them Afghans - were "aggressively searching for the terrorists".

Scaling down

US B-1 bombers pounded al-Qaeda and Taleban positions on a ridge in the Shahi Kot valley early on Wednesday.

Afghan military officials said the rebels' commander, Saif Rahman Mansour, had apparently escaped.

A special forces soldier said operations would be scaled down and continue for another 30 to 35 days.

The offensive has seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the US-led anti-terror campaign.

Eight US soldiers and at least three Afghan allies have been killed in Operation Anaconda, while the US puts militant losses in the hundreds.

The US military admitted that women and children were among 14 people killed in an air strike during the offensive in Paktia province.

Appeal to Afghans

On the final day of a three-day visit to Russia, Mr Karzai called on Afghans living in Russia to return home and help Afghanistan's post-war reconstruction.

Russian parliament speaker Sergei Mironov (left) with Hamid Karzai
Karzai received pledges of support from Russia

"Afghanistan is their home and they need no invitation to return," Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Mr Karzai as saying.

Tens of thousands of Afghans live in Russia, where many of them have been since Soviet times.

Correspondents say that many have professional skills which are badly needed in rebuilding war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin promised Mr Karzai Russia's political and economic support and urged the international community to help.

Russia has already provided more than $12m in aid to Afghanistan and has been eager to support the new administration.

The BBC's Susannah Price
"The Afghans have great experience in guerrilla warfare"
See also:

13 Mar 02 | South Asia
US admits killing Afghan civilians
12 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan battle lines shift
11 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan forces gather for final push
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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