Heavy US casualties as al-Qaeda hits back

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  • Date: Tue, 5 Mar 2002 07:49:51 -0000

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THE Pentagon admitted last night that al-Qaeda fighters had inflicted
heavy losses on American forces in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan,
killing at least eight US soldiers and wounding about 40 more as two
transport helicopters came under fire. 
The casualties, the heaviest since America’s ill-fated mission in
Somalia nearly a decade ago, were suffered during the most intense
ground combat of the five-month conflict. 

Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, warned the American public
that the battle around Shahi-Kot, known as Operation Anaconda, was
unlikely to be al-Qaeda’s “last stand” and tough combat lay ahead. 

In spite of the Pentagon’s clear determination to press ahead with the
offensive, the casualties could not have come at a worse time for the
Bush Administration as Democratic congressmen have begun to question the
“open-ended” nature of the White House’s War on Terror. 

Although there have always been doubts about the Pentagon’s willingness
to commit ground forces and to take casualties, Mr Rumsfeld made it
clear that America would not shy away from the fight. He said that there
were still hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters in pockets dotted around the
country or across Afghanistan’s borders who were capable of dissolving
and then regrouping. 

General Tommy Franks, the commander of the US Central Command, defended
the offensive against an estimated 200-400 al-Qaeda followers in a 60-70
sq mile area of Paktia province. He insisted that the operation had been
carefully planned for several weeks and the number of attacking troops
was “just right”: about 800-900 US forces plus 200 special operations
troops from allied nations, plus a roughly equal number of local Afghan

The US deaths came in two separate attacks on Chinook transport
helicopters ferrying special forces into the battle zone south of the
city of Gardez, where al-Qaeda forces have regrouped. The first
helicopter was inserting a reconnaissance unit when it was hit by a
rocket-propelled grenade that bounced off without exploding. The
helicopter was able to land, but as it lifted off, one of the soldiers
aboard apparently fell off and went missing. 

Soon afterwards, a second helicopter came under attack, and was able to
land under full control. When the troops aboard the helicopter got off,
they immediately encountered the enemy. By the time American
reinforcements arrived to evacuate the survivors, seven or eight
soldiers were killed and ten injured. 

General Franks said that, despite the losses, Operation Anaconda was
going well and had claimed 100-200 enemy lives. He said about half of
the 40 Americans wounded had already returned to their units, and none
of the others had life-threatening injuries. “The soldiers are
performing great.The equipment is performing great. We just have a lot
of work to do. 

“They’re obviously well organized. They’re dug in, they’re well armed,
and they’re fighting fiercely, “We knew they would resist strongly, and
anticipated a fierce fight. That was, that is exactly what’s taking

The Pentagon was criticised last year for allowing al-Qaeda fighters to
escape from the offensive on the Tora Bora mountain complex and this
time the Americans committed far more troops on the ground to seal off
any escape routes. 

Further south the Pakistanis have sent in reinforcements to seal off the
border. But that has made the fighters all the harder to dislodge. 

“We knew that al-Qaeda would have two choices, to run or stay and
fight,”, said General Richard Myers, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of
Staff. “It seems they have chosen to stay and fight to the last and we
hope to accommodate them.” 

The assault began with an aerial attack from bombers which pounded
suspected al-Qaeda positions with 350 bombs. Then ground forces moved
in, supported from the air by attack helicopters and AC130 Spectre

General Myers said the conditions were extremely harsh and al-Qaeda
fighters were well dug-in and heavily armed. In one instance a column of
Afghan troops was ambushed and all its lorries destroyed. The Afghans
withdrew, were resupplied and later went back in to battle. 

The altitude and the cold have also made fighting difficult. The
American-led assault is being fought at 8-11,000ft. Temperatures drop
well below zero at night. Troops and vehicles have to overcome snow and
ice as well as bullets. The helicopters being used in the airborne
assault are often operating at the limits of their capability. “It is
like being out in the Rockies in the middle of winter,” General Myers

The last time America suffered such heavy losses was in Somalia in 1993,
when 18 soldiers were killed in fierce fighting against Somali
militiamen in Mogadishu. 

While fighting continues in Afghanistan hundreds of US troops are
fighting alongside Filipino forces against militant Islamic groups. 

Source:  The Times

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