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New US Military Operation Targets Militants in Afghanistan - 2004-03-13

The U.S. military in Afghanistan says it has begun a new operation in the eastern half of the country to flush out militants, including members of the al-Qaida terror network.

A U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said the newly launched "Operation Mountain Storm" was the latest in an "evolution" of steps the coalition is taking against anti-government insurgents.

Speaking to reporters in Kabul, he said the new campaign would involve all of the more than 13,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, but he would not elaborate on the details of the operation.

U.S. and Afghan forces have been facing off against armed insurgents led by remnants of Afghanistan's former Taleban regime, but also said to include members of al-Qaida.

Reports during the past month have said U.S. forces were close to finding al-Qaida's fugitive leader, Osama bin Laden, but Lieutenant Colonel Hilferty said the new operation was not aimed at hunting for individuals.

"It is certainly about more than one person. We do have confidence, though, and the leaders of al-Qaida and the leader of (the) Taleban need to be brought to justice. And they will be," he said.

He said the real focus of Operation Mountain Storm is to maintain stability in Afghanistan as it prepares for national elections, currently slated for this summer.

The coalition campaign coincides with Pakistan's hunt for foreign militants in its semi-autonomous tribal area of South Waziristan.

That operation, launched Friday, involves a posse of local tribesmen, organized by local elders amid pressure from the Pakistani government.

Pakistani officials say the Waziristan action is unrelated to U.S. and Afghan operations across the border.