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Wednesday, 13 March, 2002, 19:08 GMT
Eyewitness: Discontent in Gardez
Afghan forces
Local forces say they do not need reinforcements
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By the BBC's Susannah Price
reporting from Paktia province
line

US and Afghan forces are celebrating the capture one of the last-known strongholds of Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan.


The major fighting is over

US military spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty

The Afghan ministry of defence has said alliance troops are now hunting the few remaining rebels after taking over the valley of Shahi Kot on Wednesday.

US Vice President Dick Cheney has declared that the Taleban regime is now "out of business, permanently".

The Americans are flush with the success of their two-week Operation Anaconda around Gardez, capital of eastern Paktia province.

But there are fears that their operations are causing serious internal divisions between local fighters in the east and Northern Alliance reinforcements.

Mopping up

US helicopters swoop low of the region's snow-covered mountains, scouring the rugged peaks for remaining al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters.

US military spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty said resistance was weakening, but the operation was continuing.

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

"The major fighting is over," he said.

The al-Qaeda fighters that are left are believed to be hiding in the network of caves and tunnels first used by the Mujahideen guerrillas in their war against the Soviets.

In one former Taleban cave, now abandoned, stacks of broken boxes of heavy artillery shells are all that remain.

Outside there are several empty crates which used to contain British-made antitank mines.

Reinforcements

The Afghan defence ministry is now sending in more reinforcements to help the Americans with their search.


We want these people to leave. There's no need for them to come here to take part in these operations against al-Qaeda

Badsha Khan
Former governor of Paktia province

Led by renowned anti-Taleban commander, Gul Haider, their tanks have been rolling into Gardez along with hundreds of troops.

"We've got between 700 and 1,000 troops. If we need any more we can ask the defence ministry for them," said Mr Haider.

"We've got no plans to attack just now. We will wait in Gardez for further orders," he said.

But the reinforcements belong to the Northern Alliance, which is based far from here.

Its troops belong to a different ethnic group to local fighters, and their presence is beginning to cause problems.

Suspicions

Commanders in Paktia Province have their own troops and are deeply suspicious about the new arrivals.

They believe the Northern Alliance could be trying to spread their influence southwards.

Mountains around Gardez
US forces say they are now mopping up Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters

The former governor of the province, Badsha Khan, who has a base outside Gardez, says his own fighters do not need any more help.

"We want these people to leave. There's no need for them to come here to take part in these operations against al-Qaeda. We can do it," he said.

"If they don't go, they'll face many problems. That's why I'm telling them to go home," he said.

Gardez city itself may be peaceful, but there is underlying tension.

Heavy fighting earlier this year between Badsha Khan and his opponents left many dead.

Now he is ready to take on the Northern Alliance.

'Threat to stability'

Many residents believe the US presence is exacerbating the problems and they should be left to deal with al-Qaeda themselves.

US troops returning from Gardez
The US says the major fighting is now over

"We wish to address the problem .... by local government and not fighters because Afghan people are tired of the war," said Mohammed Azar, a local aid worker.

While the rest of Afghanistan looks forward to peace, Gardez is a potential flashpoint.

The US bombing which shakes the town each night looks set to unleash serious political and ethnic differences.

And these could remain a threat to stability here long after the Americans have left.

See also:

13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Al-Qaeda resistance crumbles
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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