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Sunday, 19 May, 2002, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Afghan search operation moves on
British marines rest during Operation Condor
Fourth day and no sign of the enemy
International coalition troops hunting al-Qaeda or Taleban fighters in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan have covered half of their search area without meeting any resistance, a British military spokesman said.

Lieutenant Colonel Ben Curry said the British-led troops deployed had found a small amount of ammunition including two 120 mm rockets.

A US spokesman has again defended an air attack on Thursday near the city of Khost which was called after Australian special forces came under fire and which sparked the latest search operation.

Members of the Sabari tribe said 10 fighters killed in the bombing were Sabari engaged in a dispute with a neighbouring tribe and they had not fired on coalition forces.

Tribesmen told US officers at Khost airport that their fighters had been skirmishing with Balkhiel rivals over some trees near their villages 30 miles (48 km) north of the city when the bombing began.

But a US military spokesman, Major Bryan Hilferty, said on Sunday that he had "no reason" to believe the Sabaris' version of events.

"They were shooting heavy machine gun and mortars at us," he said, the ridge attacked by the AC-130 gunship was a "known al-Qaeda and Taleban area".

Sickness

About 1,000 coalition troops led by about 500 British marines are deployed in Paktia province to search for the militants.

Operation Condor, as the search is known, is taking place at heights of 6,000 to 8,000 feet where the air is thin.

Six marines have been evacuated from the operation, two with altitude sickness, one with a scorpion sting, and the others with acute sickness and diarrhoea.

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

Lieutenant Colonel Curry said on Sunday that another three British soldiers were due to return home after an outbreak of 'Winter Vomiting' disease at a field hospital at Bagram air base near Kabul.

At least 40 British personnel have been afflicted by the illness, which is characterised by one or two days of vomiting and diarrohea.

An infection control nurse has arrived from Britain to assess working practices at Bagram.

Spy plane lost

The British marines were sent to Paktia after another recent search operation in eastern Afghanistan failed to find any militants and soldiers were reported to be suffering form frustration at lack of combat.

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

The US air force has been supporting the search operation, using bases in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An unmanned spy plane crashed not far from the military base at Jacobabad in Pakistan this week, the latest of several such crashes in the Afghan campaign.

The BBC's Paul Adams, who is at Bagram air base, says the Condor operation could still prove a either a success or an embarrassment.

See also:

18 May 02 | South Asia
Al-Qaeda fighters seek Pakistani refuge
18 May 02 | UK Politics
Hoon rejects Afghan 'hype' claim
18 May 02 | South Asia
'Winter vomiting' hits UK troops
17 May 02 | South Asia
Tribes resent al-Qaeda search
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
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