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Tuesday, 19 March, 2002, 13:30 GMT
US declares Anaconda a 'success'
US soldier looks over a bombed out al-Qaeda position
Some Afghans are saying the fighters slipped away
A senior US military official has strenuously denied that large numbers of Taleban and al-Qaeda forces escaped the latest offensive in eastern Afghanistan.


I take exception to any supposition that large numbers escaped

Major General Frank Hackenback

Major General Frank Hackenback also rejected allegations that the US tally of enemy killed during the 17-day Operation Anaconda was inflated.

The offensive to flush out fighters from the caves and trenches of the mountainous Paktia province bordering Pakistan was the heaviest battle of the war so far.

But Afghan commanders fighting with US forces have been quoted as saying many fighters simply slipped across the border along secret mountain paths. They also said few bodies had been found.

US officials estimate 500 enemy fighters were killed during the offensive. At least 15 US and Afghan troops also died.

'Unqualified success'

US and Canadian forces had by Tuesday withdrawn completely from the Shah-i-Kot valley, the focal point for the offensive.

Canadian troops return to base
Anaconda was the biggest battle of the war so far

Speaking at the Bagram airbase north of the capital Kabul, General Hackenback was adamant that Operation Anaconda had been an unqualified success.

"Escaped? Of course, some people got out of Shahi Kot," he was quoted as saying by the Reuters news agency.

"But I take exception to any supposition that large numbers escaped," he said.

"We destroyed hundreds of al-Qaeda's most experienced fighters and terrorists. We destroyed their base of terrorist operations and we eliminated their sanctuary," he told reporters.

Shredded bodies

General Hackenback said few whole bodies had been found because many of those killed had been vaporised by the intense bombing by US B-52.

According to Reuters, he gave the example of 40 enemy fighters who were spotted in a mud hut before an air strike was called in.

Afghan troops near Gardez
Afghan troops joined in with the offensive

"When they (US) troops went in on the ground afterwards they found 40 pairs of shoes," General Hackenback said.

"All we saw were a couple of body parts sticking out of a 15-foot high mud heap."

In a separate development, US officials said US forces killed 16 people on Monday in an attack on three vehicles thought to be carrying fleeing al-Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan.

One person was wounded and another captured, in the attack on the convoy which took place on Sunday, 70 kilometres (45 miles) south-west of Gardez.

Speaking on Monday, US President George W Bush thanked the US troops who took part in the battle, which wound down on Wednesday, but said he was sure that more fighting would be necessary.

"These are people who are there to die, and we accommodated them ... They are relentless, but so are we," he was quoted as saying.

Britain has now said it will send 1,700 troops to help the fight against remaining Taleban and al-Qaeda forces, raising further doubts about the effectiveness of US operations so far.

See also:

19 Mar 02 | South Asia
Bush warns of battles ahead
11 Mar 02 | South Asia
Afghan forces gather for final push
13 Mar 02 | South Asia
Eyewitness: Discontent in Gardez
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