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US Warplanes Strike in Eastern Afghanistan - 2002-01-07

U.S. warplanes continue to hammer an al-Qaida base near the eastern Afghan border with Pakistan after discovering armored vehicles and artillery pieces there.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said Monday that U.S. aircraft have now struck the al-Qaida complex at Zhawar Kili on three days, using precision-guided munitions to destroy tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces.

Admiral Stufflebeem would not say if U.S. ground troops have yet gone into the camp, where al-Qaida terrorists were apparently trying to regroup. But he tod reporters at the Pentagon that remains an option. "We had bombed there on the 3rd and 4th (of January). We bombed again yesterday (Sunday)," the admiral said. "But we're not done there and so it's an ongoing operation and you shouldn't assume we won't go in there and verify (on the ground) but we're finding stuff and we're attacking that stuff and so it's a current operation so when and until those people are on the ground there we'll just sort of leave that unanswered."

Admiral Stufflebeem said U.S. warplanes have also staged fresh bombing raids on an another al-Qaida facility in eastern Afghanistan near Khost where anti-aircraft weapons were discovered.

It is the same general area where a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier was shot and killed in an ambush last week. Details of that incident remain sketchy.

But Admiral Stufflebeem said the region is a hotbed of pro-Taleban and al-Qaida sentiment and it remains particularly dangerous. "This also is an area where we did not previously have a lot of anti-Taleban coordination or connection as we had in the north and around Kandahar so to say it's a more dangerous area than the others right now is probably accurate," the admiral explained.

Meanwhile, Admiral Stufflebeem reported U.S. forces have taken into custody nearly 350 Taleban and al-Qaida detainees. He said many will soon be transferred to special detention facilities at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

The prisoners do not include the leaders of the Taleban and al-Qaida, Mullah Mohamed Omar and Osama bin Laden.

There were reports last week that Mullah Omar might be with a group of some 1,500 Taleban fighters northwest of Kandahar where Afghan authorities were negotiating their surrender with U.S. officials monitoring the process.

But Admiral Stufflebeem said little apparently came of the talks. "It has not resulted in detainees that I'm aware of," he said, "now whether or not Mullah Omar was ever there, we don't know."

Admiral Stufflebeem said the Pentagon is now going to stop chasing what he calls "the shadows" of reported Mullah Omar and bin Laden sightings. He said the focus will be on getting hard intelligence on actual pockets of resistance in Afghanistan.