Afghan govt fears uprising in east

Mar 12 2002

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GARDEZ/BAGRAM AIR BASE, March 11: Taliban and Al Qaeda guerillas have regrouped in several Afghan provinces near Kabul and thousands of government troops are on the way to head off a fresh uprising, a senior Afghan military official said on Monday.

The official said the provinces were Wardak, Ghazni, Khost and Paktia, an eastern region where thousands of US-led troops are in the ninth day of a battle to rout Al Qaeda holed up in mountain caves.

“We have intelligence that remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda are armed and still active in these regions,” the official said.

“Up to 5,000 troops will be deployed and stationed in these areas within the next two days,” he said.

As the battle near Gardez, capital of Paktia, looked close to ending, hundreds of Afghan troops with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles moved in to take the lead in a possible final assault on Al Qaeda around the area of Shahi Kot. With the Afghan forces closing in, the United States withdrew more troops from the battle zone.

For the second day running MH-47 Chinook helicopters landed at Bagram air base, the staging point for “Operation Anaconda”, with troops fresh from battle. Some 400 soldiers returned on Sunday.

With estimates that only about 200 Al Qaeda fighters are holding out in the freezing mountains near the city of Gardez, excited Afghan troops took over where the US troops left off and rode into battle on tanks and pick-up trucks.

RADIO TRAFFIC: While the United States demands an unconditional surrender, Afghan commanders said there had been low-level radio traffic between their troops and the rebels about al Qaeda forces laying down their weapons.

“It’s nothing official. Just talk between soldiers on the ground,” one commander said.

Five Afghan soldiers were wounded overnight, US military spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty told reporters at Bagram, north of Kabul. He said fighting was very light and there had been no US casualties in the past 24 hours.

At least four Chinook helicopters landed at the air base and each offloaded around 40 troops. Smaller numbers of troops could be seen preparing to go into the combat zone.

Before the latest withdrawal, about 800 US troops remained in the combat area, which is more than 30kms from Gardez, capital of Paktia province, and more than 150kms south of Kabul.

A senior US special forces officer said there were probably only 100 to 200 rebels holding out, down from more than 1,000 at the height of the fighting.

Afghan forces were boosted on Monday by the arrival at the frontline staging village of Zormat from Gardez of 500 troops who locals said were mainly ethnic Tajiks.—Reuters