(GARDEZ, Afghanistan) - In the biggest U.S.-led ground operation this year, U.S. and Afghan troops backed by U.S. jets Saturday attacked Taliban and al-Qaida forces regrouping in eastern Afghanistan. One American was killed and a number were injured, the Pentagon said.
Two Afghan fighters were also killed, the Pentagon added. The ground attack, which began at dawn Saturday, made little headway in dislodging Taliban and al-Qaida fighters who fought back with artillery, mortars and heavy machine guns, Afghan officials said.
It was the largest U.S.-led ground operation in the anti-terror campaign since the December attack on the Tora-Bora cave complex, U.S. military officials said.
A U.S. defense official said a U.S-led force of 1,500 Afghan allies, U.S. special forces and troops from the Army's 101st Airborne assault troops assembled for a battle. Afghan fighters interviewed here said the Americans told them there were about 4,000 al-Qaida and Taliban warriors holed up in the mountains.
For the first time, warplanes dropped newly developed bombs designed to send suffocating blasts through cave complexes, military officials said. The ``thermobaric'' bombs were tested in December and officials said in January that they would be rushed to the region for the war.
Afghan forces broke off the attack in early afternoon and withdrew, possibly to allow U.S. bombers to soften up Taliban and al-Qaida positions overnight. Heavy bombers could be heard flying toward the area late Saturday.
Pakistan closed its border to prevent escape by any fleeing al-Qaida or Taliban members. Associated Press reporters saw U.S. military helicopters rushing Saturday toward the snowy mountains where the battle was waged.
Ubaidullah Khan, a resident of the nearby Pakistani border town of Miran Shah, said the attack was launched after al-Qaida leaders rebuffed a surrender offer from local Afghan officials.
``We have surrounded the al-Qaida and Taliban,'' declared Saif Ullah, a member of the local governing council in Paktia province's Gardez, 20 miles north of the assault.
Remote, rugged and honeycombed with caves, the mountains around Gardez have been a hiding place for Afghan warriors since anti-Soviet guerrillas used them as a base for their fight against Soviet troops in the 1980s.
Former Taliban front-line commander Saif Rahman was believed to be leading the Taliban and Taliban-allied foreign forces still in hiding there.
Paktia was also a stronghold of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a U.S.-backed rebel commander in the 1980s who joined the Taliban and is sought by U.S. authorities.
Neither the former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar nor al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is believed to be in the area.
American warplanes and helicopters opened the attack Friday night, pounding suspected al-Qaida and Taliban hide-outs into Saturday morning.
AP reporters saw a dozen U.S. military helicopters taking off from a landing strip in Logar province south of Kabul on Saturday, kicking up clouds of brown dust as they sped away. They included at least one transport helicopter. Local residents said the helicopters had been shuttling weapons and ammunition toward the area of fighting since dawn.
``The Americans said `first we are bombing, and then we will launch an attack,''' fighter Jan Mohammed said at the Gardez hospital.
``The helicopters were rocketing, and the planes were bombing. It was too much,'' a doctor, Naguibullah, said at the Gardez hospital.
Americans and their Afghan allies threw at least 380 Afghan fighters, moving with about 30 American Special Forces, into the offensive Saturday. Afghan forces wore black wool caps with white pieces of paper on the tops, so U.S. helicopter pilots could distinguish them from Taliban and al-Qaida.
``Our goal since the beginning ... has been to eliminate al-Qaida and Taliban elements in the country, so they cannot reconstitute,'' said Maj. A.C. Roper, spokesman for the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne division at southern Afghanistan's American-held Kandahar airport.
``We are moving methodically to identify those elements so we can achieve that goal,'' Roper said.
Afghan officials say al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are regrouping in the mountains and just over the border in Pakistan, urging the faithful to wage holy war against U.S. forces.
Wives and children of al-Qaida, along with widows and families of al-Qaida dead, also are believed to be in hiding there.
The al-Qaida fighters are receiving support from a variety of groups, including Kashmiri separatists, Islamic militants in Pakistan and some former officials of Pakistan's intelligence service, according to Afghan sources.
In Pakistan, a senior government official at the border town of Miran Shah said Saturday that troops have blocked all routes to prevent escape of any al-Qaida and Taliban fleeing the attack.
The official, Javed Marwat, said a 60-mile strip with Afghanistan has been closed.
A tribal elder in the area, Haji Rasool Khan, said by telephone that his Madakhel tribe would not give shelter to any al-Qaida on the run.
The bombardment would be the United States' largest-known attack since bombing in January against the al-Qaida cave complex at Zawar Kili in Paktia province.
America's last reported ground operation in Afghanistan came Jan. 23, and failed _ mistakenly killing at least 16 Afghans who turned out to be neither Taliban nor al-Qaida, the Pentagon acknowledged this month.
Smaller, undisclosed raids have taken place since, one U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Those raids have concentrated on gathering information about pockets of resistance, and have at times netted documents, or individuals who were interrogated or then released, the official said.