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Monday, 18 March, 2002, 08:01 GMT
Operation Anaconda 'almost over'
Canadian light infantry troops board a US Chinook in Shah-i-Kot valley
Canadian troops have been searching caves
The big military offensive against al-Qaeda and Taleban forces near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan will be over "within 12 hours", says the commander of US forces in the country.

US General Tommy Franks made the announcement about Operation Anaconda at Bagram airbase, on the outskirts of Kabul.

Anaconda will be completed within 12 hours because of you

General Tommy Franks, addressing US troops
But speaking to journalists afterwards General Franks admitted that the US forces did not know where the top militants were hiding and said the threat of more al-Qaeda and Taleban attacks continued.

"It is possible for al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters to regroup in various parts of Afghanistan and that is why we are not saying that this is over. I suspect that this kind of operation could happen again," he said.

US officials estimate 500 fighters have been killed during the offensive in the Shah-i-Kot valley and Arma mountains, south of Gardez. But local Afghan commanders have suggested many of the guerrillas may have escaped into Pakistan.

At least 15 American and Afghan Government soldiers have been killed in the operation.

Valour award

General Franks flew in to Afghanistan on Monday after visits to Pakistan and Somalia.

Afghan troops near Gardez
Afghan troops joined in with the offensive

"Anaconda will be completed within 12 hours because of you," he told some 300 troops at a ceremony where he awarded the Bronze Star to four US servicemen who took part in the operation.

"You did it on time, you did it with a good plan, you did it with violent execution, you did it taking care of one another," General Franks added.

Careful search

The most intense fighting in Operation Anaconda, the largest US-led offensive in the Afghan war, ended on Wednesday.

Since then about 500 Canadian and US soldiers have been working with allied Afghan fighters to search the caves in the mountains near the city of Gardez, about 150 kilometres (95 miles) from Kabul, to flush out any remaining fighters.

Captain Steven O'Connor, a spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division, said the coalition forces had searched about 30 caves so far - finding ammunition, clothing, supplies and sensitive documents.

But they have had no contact with enemy fighters in the past 24 hours and no new casualties have been reported, he said.

The BBC's Susannah Price
"America's largest operation in Afghanistan so far is officially coming to an end"
See also:

13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Discontent in Gardez
12 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan battle lines shift
17 Mar 02 | Africa
US watches Somali al-Qaeda links
10 Nov 01 | Americas
Profile: General Tommy Franks
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