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U.S. military questions detainee found near site of gunbattle

Updated:
(BAGRAM, Afghanistan) - The U.S. military on Thursday questioned a gunman detained at the site of a battle with coalition forces that killed at least 10 enemy fighters near the volatile town of Khost in eastern Afghanistan.

Coalition forces found the man after a sweep near an airfield where gunmen fired machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars on U.S. and Afghan troops Tuesday night, touching off a firefight that wounded one American soldier in the arm.

Maj. Bryan Hilferty, spokesman for the 10th Mountain Division, said the bodies were recovered after the attack, which U.S. officials say was likely launched by al-Qaida or Taliban fighters. The detainee was wounded and found among the dead, he said.

Hilferty would not say whether the dead were killed by bombing from an AC-130 gunship called in after coalition forces came under fire or if they had died of gunshot wounds. Three U.S.-allied Afghan fighters were also killed in an ambush at a roadblock near the Khost airport, Afghan officials said.

Tensions have been running for high for months in Khost, a one-time Taliban stronghold just 40 miles east of the main battlefield of Operation Anaconda, the biggest offensive of the Afghan war. The operation ended this week.

The commander of Operation Anaconda warned Wednesday that al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are trying to rebuild their forces in eastern Paktia province, calling them an ``adaptable enemy'' drawing on new flows of cash and support among the local population.

Intelligence data shows that well-outfitted fighters already are moving to regroup, Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck said. He predicted increased activity as the weather improves.

``I can tell you there are al-Qaida operatives in Paktia right now who are going to great lengths to try to regroup or regenerate,'' Hagenbeck said in an interview with three news organizations in his office at Bagram air base. ``They are also spending a lot of money to regroup.''

He declined to elaborate on what measures al-Qaida operatives were taking. But he said it was a rich organization that could count on the traditional support of people in the eastern Paktia province on the Pakistani border.

Hagenbeck dismissed claims by Afghan commanders that many al-Qaida fighters managed to escape during the offensive.

Hagenbeck said officials used Predator remote-controlled spy planes to watch as hundreds of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters moved into the Shah-e-Kot valley in the first days of offensive _ even as the area was under attack.

``They were trying to push through, and we allowed them to come in. They were coming in very small groups _ three, four, five at a time, using a trail network and they flowed into the valley over a 48-hour period,'' he said. Hagenbeck said that even as the U.S. began to rout the enemy forces with heavy bombing and ground combat, the fighters continued to enter.

Based on monitoring of al-Qaida communications, Hagenbeck said it appeared al-Qaida leaders were unable to warn their fighters to turn back.

He said the influx of fighters was the reason for widely varying estimates of the number of enemy troops facing coalition forces. U.S. officials initially estimated there were 150 to 200 fighters in the Shah-e-Kot Valley. Estimates later rose to nearly 1,000.

Only a few dozen corpses have been recovered, but Hagenbeck said that was because the bodies had been blown to bits by U.S. bombs.

``A number of times, more than I can tell you, we watched from the aerial platforms guys being destroyed,'' Hagenbeck said. In one attack, ``we had been watching an area with 40 plus people in it. They called in the aerial strike. We watched the explosion and all we saw afterward was nothing but dirt and mud.''

Hagenbeck added: ``If you saw some of these guys that we killed, they were outfitted better than most coalition forces, including us.''

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