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Friday, 17 May, 2002, 18:49 GMT 19:49 UK
News blackout on Afghan battle
Troops from 45 Commando (Zulu Company) board a Chinook
British troops are operating on the ground
Military commanders in Afghanistan have put a virtual news blackout on a coalition operation against suspected Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters in the eastern Paktia province.

British and US forces have joined Australian troops who came under attack on Thursday from suspected Taleban and al-Qaeda fighters in south-eastern Afghanistan.

The BBC's Paul Adams who is at Bagram airbase says the military is remaining tight-lipped on the progress of the operation, codenamed Condor, but that helicopter gunships and A-10 tank busters were flying in and out of the base all day.

There have been some local reports that the fighting may have been triggered by Australian forces blundering into a dispute among local tribesmen.

Enemy contact

Speaking about Thursday's fighting, Brigadier Roger Lane, the top British commander in Afghanistan, said the Australian troops battled a "substantial force".

Coalition forces in Afghanistan
11,000 troops from 17 countries including:
US: 5,000
Canada: 2,200
Britain: 1,700
France, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Norway are also major contributors

"I can confirm that the coalition has made contact with the enemy and that some have been killed," he said.

Brigadier Lane added that no coalition casualties had been reported.

He said the fighting was taking place in a mountainous area at an altitude of 2,400 metres (8,000 feet), but declined to be more specific.

Our correspondent has been told that British troops are on the ground, American aircraft are providing cover, and that the mission is expected to last a few days.

Military blunder?

There have been some reports from the area where Operation Condor is taking place that the Australian forces may have blundered into a dispute among local tribesmen - a suggestion a British spokesmen could not rule out.

Our correspondent says the operation could still prove a success or an embarrassment.

Troops in mountain area
The hunt for al-Qaeda fighters is concentrating in mountainous areas

In recent days, the US-led coalition has been stepping up its search in eastern Afghanistan for al-Qaeda and Taleban fighters.

The fighters are thought to have dispersed into small groups and blended in with local residents or fled across the border to neighbouring Pakistan.

Coalition troops had reported no enemy contact for several weeks.

On Monday, British-led forces ended a two-week search operation in eastern Afghanistan saying they had dealt a "significant blow" to al-Qaeda's ability to mount future strikes by blowing up a big ammunition dump located in several caves in Paktia province.

That operation involved about 1,000 British and Afghan troops and was backed by American air support and special forces.

Illness spreads

However, a local anti-Taleban commander later cast doubt on the British account of the operation, saying the arms no longer belonged to al-Qaeda and were being held in reserve for Afghanistan's future army.

Meanwhile, the mystery illness which has affected British army medical workers in Afghanistan has now spread to operational staff.

A further 22 cases have been reported, all from outside the original group of three-hundred still under quarantine.

The illness, which causes vomiting and stomach pain, broke out earlier this week at a field hospital at the Bagram air base.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Adams
"There has been no further contact with the enemy"
The BBC's Paul Adams
"Operation Condor is treading a fine line between success and embarrassment"
Brigadier Roger Lane
"I can confirm that the coalition has made contact with the enemy and that some have been killed"
See also:

17 May 02 | South Asia
Tribes resent al-Qaeda search
17 May 02 | South Asia
More troops struck by illness
14 May 02 | South Asia
Weapons cache 'was al-Qaeda's'
30 Apr 02 | South Asia
US-led forces in Afghan firefight
27 Apr 02 | South Asia
Fierce Afghan clash as Rumsfeld visits
16 Apr 02 | South Asia
Training key to marines' mission
07 Apr 02 | South Asia
Rocket fired at Kabul peacekeepers
17 May 02 | South Asia
Mullah Omar 'gives interview'
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