Spin Boldak (Afghanistan), Jan. 28 (Reuters): US and Afghan forces were hunting remnants of a large band of rebels in mountain caves in southern Afghanistan today after the biggest battle in the country for nearly a year, officials said.
US military spokesman Col Roger King said at least 18 rebels loyal to renegade commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had been killed in the fighting, and said it was the largest enemy force encountered since “Operation Anaconda” last March.
Officials said US and allied warplanes had pounded a cave complex with 2,000 and 500-lb bombs overnight yesterday, and two US rifle companies had been searching the area for survivors since this morning, without success. “The number of caves is far greater than we anticipated,” said Lt Col Mike Shields. “It’s rugged terrain, it’s slow, it’s not something we are going to get through rapidly.”
Shields said he had seen no evidence the rebels had escaped and the search was continuing. “As far as we are concerned it’s not over and we are not going to treat it that way until we have a better assessment on the ground,” he said.
As Washington shifts its attention to Iraq, the US military has increasingly come under attack in Afghanistan, suggesting that 14 months after toppling the Taliban they have not wiped out the fundamentalist militia and their allies. King said US B-1 bombers, AC-130 gunships and Apache helicopters as well as Allied F-16 warplanes had attacked enemy positions for more than 12 hours throughout the night in a range of hills not far from the Pakistani border.
Norway’s government said its warplanes had dropped bombs in battle for the first time since World War II.
In Anaconda last March, the biggest US ground offensive of the Afghan war to date, about 1,500 US troops tried to flush out a force of about 1,000 Taliban and al Qaida militants from cave hideouts in eastern Afghanistan.