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Commander: Afghan Offensive Ending

March 18, 2002

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BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ The overall commander of forces in Afghanistan said Monday that the biggest U.S.-led offensive in the Afghan war was ``an unqualified and absolute success″ and would be over by day’s end.

Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, said Operation Anaconda in the Shah-e-Kot valley would be over in 12 hours. But he said overall mission in Afghanistan _ to wipe out al-Qaida and their Afghan Taliban allies _ is far from over.

``We still have additional work to do,″ Franks said during a news conference at Bagram air base north of Kabul. ``If you talk to anyone of these soldiers, they’ll tell you they are here to do that work.″

In recent days, Canadian, American and other coalition troops have been searching cave-to-cave for bodies, intelligence, weapons and anything else remaining after the two-week operation of airstrikes and ground combat seized control of the eastern Afghanistan valley where Taliban and al-Qaida had been regrouping.

The coalition forces have searched through 30 caves, finding ammunition, clothing, supplies and sensitive documents, said Capt. Steven O’Connor, spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division.

He said there had been no contact with enemy fighters in the last day and no new casualties and that he was not aware of any more enemy dead found in the area.

``It’s not about body count,″ O’Connor said. ``Bombs can blow bodies apart and they can remain unidentified.″

Franks spoke after an award ceremony for the four U.S. servicemen.

The four-star general pinned the Bronze Star with valor on Sgt. 1st Class Michael A. Peterson, 37, of Tawes, Mich., and Staff Sgt. Randel J. Perez, 30, of San Benito, Texas. He also gave out Bronze Stars for achievement to Staff Sgt. Dwayne L. Simms, 37, of the Brooklyn borough in New York City and Staff Sgt. David A. Hruban, 26, of Park Ridge, Ill.

The four men, all from the 10th Mountain Division, were involved in a fierce, 18-hour gunbattle on the opening day of the operation that began March 2.

``The 18 hours that day felt like an eternity,″ said Perez, a platoon leader. ``It was a long day that day.″

Franks refused to speculate on the number of enemy forces that were killed in Operation Anaconda, but he said the area ``is a very different place″ than it was when the operation began March 2.

Coalition allies anticipate possible ``hit-and-run″ raids by guerrillas and foreign fighters in Afghanistan that can regroup as they did in Shah-e-Kot.

``I believe that future operations may well be the size of Anaconda,″ he said.

Several Afghan commanders are convinced that many al-Qaida and Taliban fighters escaped, squeezing through narrow passes and secret paths out of the valley. The Afghans say only a few dozen bodies have been found more than two weeks after the fighting began, and the Shah-e-Kot region contains hundreds of possible escape routes to Pakistan.

U.S. officials and Afghan commanders have said the number who slipped away during Operation Anaconda and threaten to regroup elsewhere could be 100, even 400.

Franks insisted the enemy fighters did not escape en masse.

``Do I believe large numbers of terrorists escaped this operation and moved in to Pakistan? No, I do not,″ Franks said. ``What I’ve seen leads me to believe that this operation was an unqualified and absolute success.″

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