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U.S. commander says biggest U.S. offensive to be completed soon

Updated:
BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) _ Wrapping up the largest U.S. offensive of the Afghan war, the commander of forces in Afghanistan said Monday that the mission to destroy Taliban and al-Qaida forces remaining in the country was far from over.

Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. military's Central Command, described the recent offensive _ Operation Anaconda _ as ``an unqualified and absolute success'' and would be over by day's end.

The operation was launched March 2 to clear al-Qaida and Taliban fighters from the Shah-e-Kot valley in Paktia province. Al-Qaida and Taliban positions fell last week, but some of the Afghan commanders fighting alongside the Americans believe most of the fighters escaped.

Franks, who arrived here to meet U.S. commanders and award Bronze Star medals, predicted the operation would end within 12 hours. But the overall mission in Afghanistan _ to wipe out al-Qaida and their Afghan Taliban allies _ remains unfulfilled.

``We still have additional work to do,'' Franks said during a news conference at Bagram air base north of Kabul. ``If you talk to anyone of these soldiers, they'll tell you they are here to do that work.''

Franks refused to speculate on the number of enemy fighters who may have been killed in Operation Anaconda but insisted the area ``is a very different place'' than it was when the operation began.

He refuse to discuss the next stage in the U.S.-led fight against al-Qaida and Taliban holdouts but said, ``I believe that future operations may well be the size of Anaconda.''

In recent days, Canadian, American and other coalition troops have been searching cave-to-cave for bodies, intelligence information and weapons.

Coalition forces have searched through 30 caves, finding ammunition, clothing, supplies and sensitive documents, said Capt. Steven O'Connor, spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division.

He said there had been no contact with enemy fighters in the last day and no new casualties and that he was not aware of any more enemy dead found in the area.

Before meeting with reporters, Franks awarded Bronze Star medals to five U.S. service members.

Franks pinned the Bronze Star with valor on Sgt. 1st Class Michael A. Peterson, 37, of Tawes, Mich., and Staff Sgt. Randel J. Perez, 30, of San Benito, Texas. He also gave out Bronze Stars for achievement to Staff Sgt. Dwayne L. Simms, 37, of the Brooklyn borough of New York City and Staff Sgt. David A. Hruban, 26, of Park Ridge, Ill. A fifth man, Spc. James D. Brossoie, also received a Bronze Star for valor but was sick and unable to attend the ceremony. His hometown was not immediately available.

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