US Sends Hundreds Of Troop
Reinforcements Into Snowy Battle
By Christine Hauser and Stuart Grudgings

GARDEZ/BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Hundreds of U.S. troop reinforcements loaded with equipment were airlifted into a mountain battlefield in eastern Afghanistan Wednesday preparing for a lengthy confrontation with al Qaeda and Taliban rebels.
Afghan soldiers back from the front line in the fighting 20 miles east of Gardez, capital of Paktia province, said a noose was slowly tightening around rebels in well-defended bunkers and caves at heights of several thousand meters.
But the region's governor warned it could take weeks before the al Qaeda and Taliban forces were wiped out.
"We are getting so close to them now that sometimes we are just shooting with pistols," an Afghan soldier said.
Other Afghan soldiers have said they were within 100 yards of the rebel lines which twist through the mountains.
Reuters correspondents in Gardez said they could see little U.S. bombing of the area Wednesday morning, indicating aerial attacks were being held back to allow ground troops into the area.
Paktia Province governor Taj Mohammed Wardak said: "The encirclement of the rebels is getting more suffocating.
"I am certain the whole game will be over in a few weeks."
U.S. military officials said they were prepared for a lengthy battle.
Overnight, U.S. Chinook helicopters took off from Bagram, a sprawling Soviet-built complex about 30 miles north of Kabul which was apparently becoming the main base for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.
Some troops were armed with shoulder-launched rockets that were crucial to blasting the Taliban-al Qaeda forces out of their snow-covered cave entrances.
They also were equipped with night-vision equipment and dressed in winter uniforms against sub-zero temperatures.
The rebels, dotted among thousands of caves in the mountains near the Pakistan border about 150 km (95 miles) south of Kabul, were retaliating with rockets of their own, mortar bombs and heavy machinegun fire.
The United States launched strikes on Afghanistan to flush out Osama bin Laden, its prime suspect in the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, and punish his Taliban protectors.
Major Bryan Hilferty confirmed in an interview with Reuters there had been a major movement of troops from the present main U.S. base near the southern city of Kandahar to Bagram.
"About 1,000 U.S. troops are actively involved in the battle. This battle is going to go on until they (the Taliban and al Qaeda) all surrender or die," Hilferty said.
He said three battalions, which usually number 500 to 600 men, had been brought in to reinforce the base at Bagram to assist Operation Anaconda, the codename for the offensive.
A total of eight U.S. troops and at least seven Afghan soldiers have died in the operation and there have been about 40 U.S. and 30 Afghan troops wounded.
Despite the loss of American lives since the offensive -- the biggest ground battle of the five-month-old Afghan war -- began late last week, Hilferty said the campaign had been a success.
He said between 200 and 300 enemy troops had likely been killed, although no detailed assessment of Taliban casualties had been possible.
"First we identified the enemy, found out where there was a large concentration of them, then we isolated them using the Afghan, U.S. and coalition forces and now we're pounding them with superior fire power. We've had great success," Hilferty said.
U.S. defense officials told Reuters American forces had this week moved Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters into Afghanistan to join the assault along with Army AH-64 Apaches which have been used so far in the operation.
Both attack in light and darkness with rapid-fire machineguns and rockets.
A pool report from the scene of the battle quoted Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck as saying Apache attack helicopters and Air Force fighters had killed several hundred Taliban and al Qaeda fighters Tuesday.
"On Tuesday we caught several hundred of them with RPGs and mortars heading toward the fight. We body slammed them today and killed hundreds of those guys," the general said.
But U.S. military officers in the battlefield spoke of stiffer resistance than expected.
"I don't think we knew what we were getting into this time, but I think we're beginning to adjust," said Sgt. Maj. Mark Nielsen, 48, from Indianapolis, in a media pool report.
Afghan officials said they believed neither Saudi-born al Qaeda leader bin Laden nor Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar were in the battle area.
U.S. officials have left open the possibility that bin Laden is dead but said they have no clear evidence of his fate.

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