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US & Afghan Forces Attacking Taleban, al-Qaida Remnants - 2002-03-02

A new military offensive has been launched against remnants of the Taleban and the al-Qaida terrorist network in Afghanistan.

U.S. and Afghan forces are attempting to dislodge diehard al-Qaida and Taleban fighters from mountain strongholds in Paktia province.

Provincial officials say a force of some 600 Afghan fighters, accompanied by an estimated 50 U.S. special forces troops, moved into the Shah-e-Kot mountains Saturday, some 40 kilometers south of the provincial capital Gardez. Local officials say heavy U.S. air bombardment of the area began Friday and continued into Saturday.

Taleban and al-Qaida fighters are reported to be responding with mortars, rockets, and other heavy weapons.

Reports say al-Qaida and Taleban fighters are holed up with their families in the rugged region, located some 150 kilometers south of Kabul.

A U.S. military official in Kandahar declined to comment except to confirm that operations are underway in Eastern Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Pakistan said it is sealing off a portion of its border with Afghanistan to prevent any al-Qaida or Taleban forces from escaping.

The Taleban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan dissolved in the face of fierce U.S.-led attacks. But some 4,000 to 5,000 of them are believed to remain inside Afghanistan. U.S. officials say some of them are attempting to regroup in Paktia, located close to the border with Pakistan, and have been urging their followers to start a new war against U.S. forces.

However, still unclear are the respective fates of the two top men, al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taleban leader Mullah Omar. Both disappeared from sight when the U.S. bombing campaign began last year. Afghan officials believe them both to still be alive. But no proof has been forthcoming one way or the other.