U.S. special forces on covert mission roam turbulent eastern Afghanistan

Saturday, January 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KHOST, Afghanistan (AP) _ The United States intensified its anti-terror campaign in turbulent eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, dropping bombs on suspected al-Qaida and Taliban hide-outs as a small group of U.S. special forces searched for renegade followers of Osama bin Laden.

To the south, the U.S. military prepared for a long stay. Fresh Army soldiers touched down at Kandahar's airport overnight, and officials said more troops were expected in coming days _ part of the rotation of American forces based at the battle-scarred air base.

Col. Frank Yiercinski of the 101st Airborne Division said at least 2,000 troops would be flown to Kandahar. While the approximately 3,000 U.S. Marines now holding the airport were primarily there to secure it, the U.S. Army would perform a ``full spectrum'' of operations during its open-ended stay, possibly including humanitarian assistance, he said.

About 100 solemn-faced Marines gathered at the Kandahar base Saturday to pay tribute to seven Marines killed when their KC-130 transport plane slammed into a mountain ridge sear the Shamsi air base in southwestern Pakistan on Wednesday. The military said Saturday that the bodies of five of the victims were found and would be flown to the United States.

The deaths will ``strengthen our resolve to do everything we can to eradicate terrorism in the world,'' Cmdr. Joseph Scordo, a Marine chaplain, told Marines assembled in the bullet-pocked airport terminal with their M-16 assault rifles and rocket launchers pointed at the floor. The troops sand ``Amazing Grace.''

Meanwhile, the first group of 20 al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners flown from the holding area at the Kandahar base to a U.S. naval base in Cuba were allowed an exercise walk Saturday _ with their hands bound and a U.S. soldier on each side _ after spending their first night in detention there.

In the eastern Afghan town of Khost, dominated by a large blue-domed mosque, a small group of U.S. special forces holed up for the night in a technical school declined an interview request from The Associated Press that was conveyed to the Americans by a grim-faced, heavily armed Afghan guard _ one of dozens posted by a regional commander at the facility.

But Bacha Khan, the regional governor, said the strike force, consisting of about 20 men, had arrested four of his followers earlier in the day on suspicion of belonging either to al-Qaida or the Taliban.

He said the Americans were also looking for the killer of Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman, a Green Beret killed Jan. 4 by small-arms fire during an ambush near Khost, a few miles from the Pakistani border. He was the first American serviceman killed by enemy fire in Afghanistan.

Indicating the presence of other U.S. troops in the region, two truckloads of American troops were sighted speeding northward toward Kabul. Bomb blasts shook Khost after nightfall, suggesting the U.S. again struck in the Zawar Kili region, a nearby area that is riddled with tunnels and caves.

The region has been targeted repeatedly over the last few days by U.S. bombers. Maj. Brad Lowell, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., said warplanes struck what he called a huge al-Qaida training complex again Friday, acting on evidence that more members of the terrorist network had arrived there.

Some local residents say fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and other senior figures of his fallen regime could be hiding in the area. One man who identified himself only as Mohammed said 14 people were killed by bombs on Thursday.

Security is extremely shaky along much of the border with Pakistan. Many tribal leaders distrust each other and are believed to be holding onto weapons in case interethnic conflict breaks out.

Afghan fighters backed by U.S. special forces sealed a key border crossing on Friday in an apparent attempt to keep tribesmen from bringing weapons across.

A spokesman for the governor of Kandahar province, which also borders Pakistan, said Friday that disarmament efforts there were also aimed to end the practice of demanding bribes for passage across the border.

Security in Kabul, the capital, also has been threatened by the presence of armed men on the streets. Friday midnight was the deadline to meet Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's order that all armed men return to their barracks.

Although there was a noticeable reduction in the number of men carrying machine guns and of vehicles packed with armed men, and Karzai said the situation ``looked good'' Saturday morning. However, guns remained a common sight.

U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, speaking after a three-day visit to Kabul, said that basic security trumps every other priority in reconstructing Afghanistan and that the multinational force being deployed is key to establishing security.