Britain: Operation Hurt al-Qaida
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BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ A two-week search operation by mostly British forces in eastern Afghanistan blew up ammunition dumps and hide-outs in a ``significant blow″ to al-Qaida’s ability to mount future terrorist strikes, the top British commander in the U.S.-led coalition said Monday.
In southern Afghanistan, U.S. special operations troops were attacked and returned fire, killing five men, Lt. Col. Dave Lapan, a Defense Department spokesman, said Monday. No American forces were killed in the incident Sunday about 50 miles north of Kandahar.
Lapan said the U.S. troops also captured 32 prisoners in the gunbattle, the first in several weeks between U.S. forces and suspected Taliban or al-Qaida holdouts in Afghanistan. Unknown assailants also have fired rockets at U.S. positions near Khost in the east.
Announcing the end of Operation Snipe in eastern Afghanistan, Brig. Roger Lane said ``a vast arsenal of weaponry″ had been destroyed, as well as caves and bunkers used by remnants of Osama bin Laden’s organization and his Taliban allies.
``It is true to say that we did not encounter the enemy during this operation,″ he told reporters at Bagram, the main coalition base north of Kabul. But ``from a strategic perspective, this is an encouraging sign.
``The fact that al-Qaida had been forced to abandon one of the most strategically well-placed and easily defended locations in Afghanistan speaks volumes for the military and psychological impact of the coalition’s operations,″ he said.
Begun on April 28, about 1,000 British and Afghan troops, backed by American air support and special operations, searched through about 77 square miles of previously unchecked, desolate mountain terrain.
The goal, Lane said, was ``to destroy any al-Qaida forces with whom we came into contact, to destroy any terrorist infrastructure and deny the area as a base for terrorist activity.
``I believe that these objectives have been achieved,″ he said. ``In doing so we have delivered a significant blow to the ability of al-Qaida to plan, mount and sustain terrorist operations in Afghanistan and beyond.″
The mission was part of Operation Mountain Lion, the U.S.-led search for Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan.
Coalition troops have reported no enemy contact for weeks and say al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have scattered into small groups or fled across the border to Pakistan.
But in another sign that Taliban supporters are still operating in eastern Afghanistan, two rockets were fired at a U.S. military unit operating in the area, causing no casualties, said Sur Gul, security chief in the town of Khost.
The rockets were fired Sunday night from Gor Voz district at Khanadar village, north of the airport, where dozens of American military personnel are based.
Speaking by telephone, Gul said it was not known what kind of missiles were fired or who fired them, but that ``it was from someone loyal to the Taliban who wants to destabilize Afghanistan.″
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Bryan Hilferty said the rockets landed several hundred yards from Khost airfield _ the fourth time in recent weeks that a small team of U.S. forces there had been targeted.
About 130 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division returned to Bagram on Monday from a two-day mission whose aim was to ``find and destroy enemy forces that have been sporadically launching rockets at Khost,″ he said.
The troops searched several caves and a building and found recently used rocket launching sites in a hilly area a few miles south of Khost, but there was no enemy contact, Hilferty said.
Gul said another incident Monday morning indicated continuing sympathy for the ousted Taliban. A boy of about 15 threw a grenade at a music cassette shop, injuring the shopkeeper, Gul said. The boy escaped.
The hardline Taliban banned music during their rule that collapsed last year.
A British military spokesman at Bagram air base said, meanwhile, that two Chinese-made rockets aimed at British troops in southeastern Afghanistan were found and dismantled by a local warlord before they could be fired.
The 107 mm rockets, connected to crude timers, were discovered on Sunday about seven kilometers (four miles) from a British forward operating base by a warlord named Shiraz, said Royal Marines spokesman Lt. Col. Ben Curry.
``This is the first time we’ve been aware of munitions being targeted at us,″ Curry told reporters.
``The rockets were aimed in the direction of the base and primed with ... a crude water system timer. Basically when the water drips out, the rockets are fired.″
There was no information about the identities of the would-be attackers.
In Pakistan’s tribal belt, which borders Afghanistan, U.S. Special Forces have joined Pakistani troops in an attempt to flush out al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives hiding there.
But Taliban holdouts in that area have told The Associated Press that their movements are only slightly restricted. While they move around cities and towns cautiously, their movement in the rural regions is mostly free.
Allies in eastern Afghanistan are now concentrating their efforts on gathering intelligence and seizing arms caches to deny their use to opponents.
Hilferty said American and Afghan troops had found 2,000 large caliber rounds of ammunition in a cave in north-central Afghanistan.
``There’s no information that those caves have been recently accessed. So it may just be stuff left over from the Soviet war or the wars after that,″ Hilferty said.