GREAT LAKES, Ill. (AP) _ U.S. special forces troops have engaged in ground combat in Afghanistan, ``killing Taliban that won't surrender'' as well as al-Qaida terrorists, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday.
No Americans have been killed or wounded in the encounters, he said while disclosing that hundreds of U.S. special operations troops are on the ground in northern and southern Afghanistan assisting opposition forces and hunting al-Qaida leaders. Rumsfeld previously had indicated that their numbers were in the dozens.
``They have gone into places and met resistance and dealt with it,'' he told reporters while flying from Washington to the Navy's recruit training center, where he spoke at a graduation ceremony.
At the Pentagon, a senior official estimated that the Taliban have lost control of more than two-thirds of Afghanistan. Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, the deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the area around Kandahar in the south and Kunduz in the north remained in flux.
The U.S. Central Command announced that a stray bomb damaged a mosque Friday in the town of Khowst, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. The laser-guided, 500-pound bomb dropped by an Air Force plane malfunctioned and did not hit its target, ``a known al-Qaida facility,'' the command said in a statement.
``We are unaware of any injuries as a result of the errant bomb,'' the statement said.
Rumsfeld's description of U.S. special forces operations in Afghanistan was the most complete yet offered.
``They're killing Taliban that won't surrender and al-Qaida that are trying to move from one place to another,'' he said without elaborating on the circumstances. He did not specifically say there had been gunbattles, and Stufflebeem told reporters he had not seen any reports of such battles.
The U.S. special forces are carrying out missions for which they are specially trained _ not just direct combat against selected targets but also reconnaissance and coordination with opposition forces. They are unconventional warriors fighting in what President Bush said at the start would be the most unconventional of wars.
Some American troops are riding on horseback and packing supplies on donkeys as they gather intelligence, call in airstrikes and help the anti-Taliban forces who have swept across northern Afghanistan in recent days. Rumsfeld said the troops also are scouting airfields for U.S. use.
``We've had some instances where they've been overrun,'' he said, referring to U.S. special operations troops. But they managed to call in airstrikes and escape harm.
In the last few weeks, American forces in the north of the country have been helping opposition groups with weapons, supplies, targeting and battle strategy. Rumsfeld said that the effectiveness of U.S. bombing over Afghanistan improved greatly once Americans arrived on the ground to call in strikes.
Rumsfeld said he has received authoritative reports that Mohammed Atef, the right-hand man to Osama bin Laden, was killed in an airstrike. Stufflebeem said the report he had seen was based on a conversation intercepted after a recent airstrike against a site known to be used by Taliban and al-Qaida leaders. He suggested the conversation took place in a country other than Afghanistan.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was in Washington on Friday to brief President Bush on his plan for capitalizing on the Taliban's collapse and finishing off al-Qaida.
Rumsfeld told reporters the original war plan is being ``modestly recalibrated.''
In his speech at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, north of Chicago, Rumsfeld told the new sailors they were about to embark on a ``great adventure.''
``And you are doing it at a time of war,'' he said. He said the Navy is ``coming to the rescue'' in the Arabian Sea, where aircraft carriers have launched the bulk of warplanes that have flown missions in the war against terrorism.
At a news conference after his address, Rumsfeld was asked whether he knew if bin Laden had escaped Afghanistan.
``I suspect he's still in the country,'' he said. ``Needless to say, if we knew his whereabouts, we would have him.''
He said he believes a number of al-Qaida members have been killed, including Atef, who is suspected of helping plan the Sept. 11 terror attacks that crashed planes in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
``I have seen those reports,'' Rumsfeld said of Atef's reported death. ``Do I know for a fact that that's the case? I don't. The reports I've received seemed authoritative.'' He also said U.S. attacks ``successfully have hit a number of them _ particularly in last five or six days.''
Rumsfeld said high-level Taliban leaders have been captured by opposition Afghan forces and American officials are planning to interrogate them.
A second group of Marines, meanwhile, is joining the operation in Afghanistan, defense officials said Friday. About 2,100 Marines aboard a three-ship Amphibious Ready Group, led by the USS Bataan, sailed through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea on Thursday, they said. Another group of 2,100 Marines already is in the Arabian Sea.