SLUG: 2-287372 Afghan Fighting (S&L)
TITLE=AFGHAN FIGHTING (S/L)
INTRO: The U-S military pulled troops out of the fighting in eastern Afghanistan, saying that the major portion of the fighting is over. But as Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, officials say the operation to clear the area of al-Qaida and Taleban fighters is not over.
TEXT: About 400 U-S soldiers were pulled out of the battle zone south of Gardez, in what officials said was an end to the major phase of the fighting.
But a U-S military spokesman at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul said Operation Anaconda, as the military has dubbed it, is not over. He said it would continue until the last remnants of the joint al-Qaida and Taleban force had been eliminated.
The spokesman did not say how many troops, if any, would be sent in as replacements.
The operation had been launched just more than a week ago to clear the area of what had been described as a regrouped al-Qaida-Taleban force. A task force made up of Afghan soldiers, joined by U-S regular and special forces troops, launched an assault in the high mountain range where al-Qaida and Taleban fighters had holed up in tunnels and caves.
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By both U-S and Afghan accounts, it was a fierce battle. The initial assault stalled as troops came under withering heavy arms fire from the al-Qaida and Taleban fighters entrenched in the high ridges.
But the tide turned as U-S airpower was brought into play. Wave after wave of bombers and attack helicopters pounded the mountain redoubts of the al-Qaida and Taleban with bombs and rockets. Returning U-S soldiers said the bombardment was almost nonstop.
To get at their enemy in their caves and tunnels, U-S aircraft used a new bomb that literally sucks the air out of enclosed spaces, causing those inside to suffocate.
The conditions were difficult for both sides. Temperatures in the high mountain ranges of Paktia province were well below freezing, and bad weather sometimes limited operations.
Eight U-S servicemen died in the operation, the highest American death toll since operations began in Afghanistan last year. An unknown number of Afghan fighters also died.
It is not known how many opposition fighters remain holed up in the mountains. (SIGNED)
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