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US Identifies New Afghan Targets; Al-Qaida Weapons Complex Destroyed - 2002-01-14


U.S. forces are looking for new targets in Afghanistan after finally destroying a massive al-Qaida weapons complex near the Pakistan border.

One hundred days after the start of the U.S. military offensive in Afghanistan, top defense officials say a huge complex of al-Qaida buildings and caves at Zhawar-Kili in eastern Afghanistan has at last been largely destroyed.

With U.S. forces on the ground directing air strikes over a period of several days, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem of the Pentagon's Joint Staff says, warplanes repeatedly dropped precision-guided munitions on a variety of targets. These included more than 60 buildings that were destroyed and at least 50 caves that are now sealed off.

Admiral Stufflebeem said U.S. troops also removed heavy weapons from some caves and then called in air strikes so the equipment could also be destroyed. "It was obvious once we got special operating forces on the ground to be able to look at this complex that this had been at one time a significant al-Qaida facility, and therefore," he said, " it was taking time to get into the caves and be able to pull out equipment that was discovered there, some of which were tanks."

But Admiral Stufflebeem concedes there are probably still other al-Qaida facilities in the border area with Pakistan. He said U.S. forces are now turning their attention away from Zhawar-Kili to conduct new search-and-destroy missions elsewhere in the region. He continued, "We have leveled the remaining structures that were found on the surface and we have closed all the caves that we would intend not be reoccupied so I guess the best way to term it is it's now time to go look elsewhere."

Admiral Stufflebeem denies suggestions that the search-and-destroy process is being prolonged because Afghan forces working with the United States have lost interest in continuing the war. "All of the anti-Taleban forces," he said, "have been extremely helpful in trying to help guide us to the most logical place to go and look for these kinds of caves."

Admiral Stufflebeem said there is an extraordinary number of caves where al-Qaida and Taleban forces could be hiding or storing equipment. He said there are not enough U.S. troops to explore all of them at once so missions are being prioritized on the basis of intelligence information.

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