WASHINGTON, May 1: The United States is deploying several hundred troops and helicopters to the eastern Afghan mountains, near Pakistan, to support British and other Western forces hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, US officials said on Wednesday.

One senior official said about 200 soldiers from the US 101st Airborne Division would join several hundred British Marines, Canadian troops and others already involved in an operation near Khost.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that up to 1,000 US soldiers could join the operation near Khost, only 32kms from the Pakistan border.

But both the US Central Command based in Tampa, Florida, and the senior US official disputed that figure.

“The number is high. But certainly a large number are being moved,” the official said.

The Pentagon believes hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters could be gathering in the area.

One US official confirmed the Post report that the United States had also moved AH-64 “Apache” attack helicopters to a US special forces base near Khost.

US and Afghan troops conducted a major two-week operation in the mountainous region around Gardez in early March. American warplanes dropped more than 2,500 bombs in “Operation Anaconda,” reportedly killing hundreds of regrouping al Qaeda and Taliban.

RUMSFELD MUM ON DETAILS: US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declined to confirm or deny the troop movements, but told reporters at a briefing that Al Qaeda were still hiding in Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistan.

“There is no question but that in the two locations I’ve said — in the country and over the borders — there still are a nontrivial number of those folks that would very much like to take back the country,” he said.

“It is our task to see that that doesn’t happen,” Rumsfeld added. He said he did not personally know of any “actionable” intelligence reports suggesting that Osama bin Laden or other leaders of al Qaeda were hiding on either side of the border.

Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him on a trip to Afghanistan last week that spring could bring a regrouping of remnants of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.—Reuters

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