Arma mountains shelter fugitives as US jets pound al-Qaeda, Taliban hideouts

This is how the battle is playing out: al-Qaeda fighters, usually in pairs, jump out from cave entrances in the snow-covered mountain peaks and fire rocket-propelled grenades and missiles at US positions in the valley below. B-52s - 10 to 15 minutes later - pummel the cave dwellers, while a US Special Forces team heads higher into the mountains. Their faces camouflaged, and flanked by 50 Afghan soldiers, the US troops advance in three jeeps and two all-terrain motorbikes.

As the US significantly beefed up its presence with both US special forces troops and their Afghan allies, the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters strengthened their positions in Arma mountains, reports said. Reports have spoken of tensions between the reinforcements from Kabul and local troops in the mainly Pashtun province of Paktia, but the US military denied there was an ethnic divide.

The main grievance of local leaders in Paktia was that the troops were from outside their province. US bombers have launched new strikes on militant positions in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan as ground forces prepare for a final push.

After 10 days of fighting near Gardez, capital of Paktia, the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces appear to have been splintered into small pockets of resistance, US military officer said. The US has withdrawn 400 combat troops from the mountains but fresh reinforcements were Monday sent by Karzai interim authority to the area.

The reports of differences among the Afghan troops have also been played down by the American military. An Afghan commander in Gardez, named only as Ismail, said a final push against the militants would probably be made within the next two days. About 100 Afghan government troops backed by tanks have left Gardez for a US base in preparation for a new attack on the militants, the Afghan Islamic Press reports.

The al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters - using Stinger missiles left over from the US operation here in the 1980s and led by Mullah Muhammed Omar's military commander - are preparing for a do-or-die showdown.

The residents village of Shahi Kot said there are some 800 to 1,500 hard-line Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters - mainly Chechens - holed up here. They apparently regrouped in these fortified mountain complexes after they left Tora Bora.

Gen Tommy Franks, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said: “I think the days ahead are going to continue to be dangerous days for our forces.” He also raised the possibility of sending in even more firepower, including additional transport aircraft, infantry, and special operations troops.

“Commander of al-Qaeda forces, Maulavi Mansoor's fighters brought dozens of Stinger missiles from the Zawar Khili, close to the Pakistani western borders before it was bombed,” said Haji Sardar Khan of Shahi Kot.Operation Anaconda is taking place in the Arma Valley in the Shahi Kot mountain chain, southwest of Gardez.

“This area is different and more difficult than Tora Bora,” says Mohammad Shakir Sahak, a tribal chief at Zarmat, which is north of Arma al-Qaeda base. “The Shahi Kot series of mountains and valleys are deeper, wider, and higher than Tora Bora.”

“The al-Qaeda fighters are well equipped,” Afghan anti-Taliban commander Totakhail said. “They are firing rockets, mortars, bombs, and heavy machineguns - fighting a guerrilla war.” US and allied forces, who were brought by Chinook helicopters from Bagram airport north of Kabul, were heading toward the front line in Shahi Kot.

US warplanes also continue their round-the-clock bombardment of al-Qaeda forces holed up in cave complexes. And the US helicopters hover over the eastern edge of the mountains bordering Pakistan during and after the bombing.

US soldiers returning from the front lines expressed disappointment, however, with one glaring absence: Afghan troops. According to pool reports from the region, the original plan was for US soldiers to pull out after a couple of days and be replaced by Afghan troops led by commander Zia.

Meanwhile, local officials in Gardez say they are negotiating with the brother of a former US-backed rebel commander during the 1980s, who later joined the Taliban.Ibrahim Haqqani has indicated he wants to surrender, officials said while speaking on condition of anonymity.

His brother, Jalaluddin Haqqani, was known for his close ties to the al-Qaeda network in Paktia and who spent some time in the Pakistani border town of Miran Shah in the tribal belt. It is believed Ibrahim Haqqani would have information about al-Qaeda concentrations and bases in the region as well, local officials said.

Safiullah Gul PRAVDA.RU

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