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Thursday, 14 March, 2002, 15:38 GMT
Canadians scour Afghan caves
Afghan soldiers near the eastern city of Gardez
Afghan soldiers are also involved in the new operation
Hundreds of Canadian troops have begun searching caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters held out against American-led forces for almost two weeks.

A spokesman said they were looking for information that may have been left by the guerrillas, and for survivors.

Few bodies of enemy fighters have been found, although US officials believe hundreds have been killed.

We are conducting sensitive site exploitation, looking for information, looking in the caves

US military spokesman

It is thought some may have been buried as caves collapsed under heavy aerial bombardment.

The new operation is the first led by the Canadians in the five-month-old Afghan campaign.

US and Afghan troops finally overran the cave and trench complex on Tuesday and Wednesday after fierce resistance.

Fears of booby-traps and land-mines have also delayed searches of the area.

'Operation Harpoon'

About 500 Canadian infantry troops are taking part in the operation "designed to destroy and the remaining pockets of Taleban and al-Qaeda elements" in the Shahi Kot Valley and the Arma mountains, a Canadian military spokesman said.
US helicopter at Bagram airbase
US helicopters ferried in the Canadian troops to the Shahi Kot area

US forces spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty said the Canadians had taken over from the Americans on the ground.

A total of about 1,000 troops are now involved - about half Canadians with a US rifle company, the other half allied Afghans.

"We are conducting sensitive site exploitation, looking for information, looking in the caves," Major Hilferty said.

He said the caves were probably booby-trapped.

The new action, called Operation Harpoon, is part of Operation Anaconda - the 13-day US-led offensive against the last known stronghold of Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters.

Possible escapes

Afghan commanders have expressed concern that many militants may have slipped away across the rugged mountains.

Major Hilferty said he had "no direct intelligence" about possible escapes but "obviously some have probably escaped".

The reason that not many enemy bodies had been found was "probably because we dropped very big bombs on them... also there were many in caves and we believe that we have shut the caves with them in there", he suggested.

The spokesman added that Afghan forces in the battle area had been "burying all the bodies they found".

Fewer than 20 people have been captured in Operation Anaconda - but none are thought to be senior Taleban or al-Qaeda leaders.

The offensive has seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the US-led anti-terror campaign. Eight US servicemen have died and 49 have been wounded in the action so far. Several allied Afghans have also been killed.

See also:

13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Allied forces pursue al-Qaeda fugitives
13 Mar 02 | South Asia
US admits killing Afghan civilians
12 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan battle lines shift
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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