| A soldier breaks down in Bagram air base as the remains of a helicopter crew killed during action is sent back to US on Tuesday. (AFP)
Bagram, March 25 (Reuters): Hundreds of US soldiers launched an air assault today, as a major operation to hunt down Taliban and al Qaida fugitives expanded in southern Afghanistan, a military spokesman said.
The operation, which started at the same time as the war in Iraq last Thursday, is being carried out in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar province with up to 100 men targeted, US military spokesman Col Roger King said.
He said another large cache of arms, the third since the operation began, was found as US troops swept through the eastern part of the province.
Coalition forces conducted an air assault in the Samighar mountains today in support of Operation Valiant Strike, King told a news briefing at US headquarters in Bagram Air Base, just north of Kabul.
US and allied troops are searching Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden and members of his al Qaida network, prime suspects in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, as well as leaders of the Taliban regime that sheltered them.
King would not say what groups he thought were operating in the area being searched.
“There is probably the potential for there to be 50 to 100 of the people you would classify as enemy or people who support them in the area we are operating in,” he said. “Finding them in large part depends on their reaction to our presence,” King added.
The operation was first centred on a series of villages and cave complexes about 100 km east of Kandahar, and the air assault moved it about 30 km closer to the Pakistani border.
King also said an apparent upsurge in attacks on coalition positions in the wake of the Iraq war had died down.
“I think there probably was, at least within the first 24 hours, a flurry of activity directed toward coalition forces, but it seems to have got back pretty much to the status we had beforehand.”
There were several rocket attacks late last week at coalition forces, but no injuries. King said the operation had about 600 coalition troops on the ground.