U.S. soldiers, returning from front lines, describe pursuit of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters - NewsOn6.com - Tulsa, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports - KOTV.com |

U.S. soldiers, returning from front lines, describe pursuit of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters


BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ U.S. soldiers returning from the front lines in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday described dangerous cave-by-cave searches for the few remaining al-Qaida and Taliban fighters holed up in the rugged hills of the Shah-e-Kot valley.

The most intense combat in Operation Anaconda ended more than a week ago. But about 500 Canadian and U.S. infantrymen, along with special forces and U.S.-allied Afghan fighters, have been searching the cave complexes for the past several days.

The Canadians are expected to leave the area Sunday, according to the Canadian Press news agency, which has a reporter with the Canadian unit.

Coalition soldiers shot and killed an enemy fighter who was apparently trying to bury a fallen comrade, said Staff Sgt. Del Rodriguez, 31, of the 10th Mountain Division.

``We plugged him,'' said Rodriguez, of Redding, Calif., of the incident Thursday. The unit then spotted the body of the second fighter.

``I wasn't going to take any chances so we shot him too,'' said Staff Sgt. Lonnie Schultz, 28, of Denver. Rodriguez said it appeared the first fighter had been trying to bury the body of the other man.

Rodriguez and the others found ``spider holes'' in the rocks that enemy fighters could pop out of which led to an underground chamber. Inside the bunker were rocket-propelled grenade rounds and other ammunition as well as medical supplies, including IVs hanging from the cave ceiling.

``We didn't expect to see anything like that,'' said Sgt. Jonathan Wightman, 26, Phoenix, who also took part in the assault. ``It's the best damn bunker I've ever seen.''

Rodriguez said that later that night, four Afghan fighters were spotted by an AC-130 Spectre in the same area, moving toward the valley floor. U.S. allied Afghan fighters tracked them to the valley and killed them in a firefight, Rodriguez said.

Lt. Col. Pat Stogran, commander of the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan, said the area of operation was marked by ``grotesquely rugged terrain'' which has made it difficult to clear.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday the fighting is ``winding down,'' but skirmishes continue.

He said a key objective of the U.S.-led campaign is to keep al-Qaida and Taliban fighters from regrouping, either in Afghanistan or in neighboring countries.

``We need to make sure that the well-trained terrorists who left Afghanistan do not set up sanctuaries in other nations,'' Rumsfeld said.

A U.S. official said that numerous al-Qaida fighters fleeing battles near Shah-e-Kot are believed to have escaped into Pakistan.

It is unclear how many of the terrorist group's fighters fleeing the U.S.-led crackdown evaded Pakistani troops to cross the border, said the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity

In other developments:

_ Eight U.S. soldiers received Purple Hearts Saturday for injuries suffered during an intense, 18-hour firefight on March 2, the first day of Operation Anaconda.

_ A group of 27 Polish troops left the Polish city of Wroclaw on Saturday bound for Kabul to join the international peacekeeping operation there. The rest of the 87-strong contingent is to leave Monday.

_ The United States gave 20,000 books to Kabul University on Saturday, shifting a collection that had been housed in the U.S. cultural center here to the university's newly refurbished library.

The collection, which includes reference books, works of American literature and college texts on physics, biology and English grammar, was transferred days before the new school year begins March 23.
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