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US widens hunt for Taliban rebels

Spin Boldak/Bagram, March 21 (Reuters): Thousands of US and Afghan soldiers combed mountain caves and searched houses in southern Afghanistan today on the second day of a major military operation against Taliban rebels, Afghan officials said.

“Operation Valiant Strike” was launched in the Samigar mountains of southeastern Afghanistan yesterday morning, less than an hour before the first US air strikes on Iraq.

Afghan officials and military commanders said the Americans had arrested 12 people, including members of the former Taliban regime and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami movement.

But US military spokesman Colonel Roger King denied having made contact with “enemy forces”, who he described as supporters of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida movement. He said search operations were still under way over “a pretty large area”.

“There are villages in the low ground, there are caves in the high ground, and (US forces) will be doing a systematic covering of the area of operations,” King told reporters at the US military’s headquarters at Bagram air base, north of Kabul.

The latest operation is centred on a series of villages and cave complexes about 100 km (60 miles) east of Kandahar close to the Pakistani border, including the districts of Maruf, Arghistan and Shin Naray.

Afghan officials in the nearest major town of Spin Boldak and the village of Maruf said the Americans had made 12 arrests. “The operation continues and we have arrested about 12 of the enemy’s soldiers, while the rest seem to have fled,” Abdul Razzaq, commander of the Afghan border force in the nearest main town of Spin Boldak said.

Fox News Channel, whose correspondent Geraldo Rivera is accompanying US forces, also showed images yesterday of several turbanned men bound and on the ground after a raid on one village. Rivera said some of the men were thought to have “relevant information, possibly pertaining to attacks”.

Observers say the latest US operation appears aimed at sending Afghan rebels a message that the US army will not be distracted by war in Iraq.

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