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US Forces Expand Search For al-Qaida - 2002-03-18

U.S. defense officials say Operation Anaconda in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan is over and a "success." But the hard work of tracking down al-Qaida terrorists goes on.

Some 500 coalition troops are still sweeping through the area south of Gardez, searching caves and tracking down any al-Qaida or Taleban fighters remaining in the Operation Anaconda battle area.

But the latest offensive military actions have occurred outside that zone. In one incident, U.S. forces intercepted a convoy of three vehicles carrying suspected al-Qaida terrorists fleeing the area.

"Our forces attempted to stop and detain the individuals in the vehicles. The enemy resisted and a firefight ensued," said Air Force Brigadier General John Rosa. "Sixteen were killed, one was wounded and another one was detained without injuries. Numerous weapons, ammunitions, rocket-propelled grenades were found in these vehicles. There were no U.S. casualties in this operation."

General Rosa says the other operation took place near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. He says 31 persons were detained in a raid on a suspicious compound.

"Weapons and a large amount of ammunition were also discovered in this compound," he said.

Meanwhile, General Rosa says the 600 U.S. troops helping Philippine soldiers battle Abu Sayyaf terrorists suspected of links with al-Qaida have also been busy. But he stresses there is no U.S. involvement in combat operations.

We evacuated three Filipino members from Basilan Island to Zamboanga after they were wounded in a firefight with Abu Sayyaf," he said. "This was strictly a medevac [medical evacuation] operation and U.S. forces were not involved in any fighting nor did they come under fire during the rescue effort."

In yet another development, the Pentagon says it is considering cutbacks in the combat air patrols flown over U.S. cities since last September's terrorist attacks.

Pentagon chief spokeswoman Victoria Clarke says no final decisions have yet been made but indicates there will be a flexible mixture of actual patrols and so-called strip alerts where fighters stand ready to take off.

"What we are looking at is a different mix of combat air patrols, strip alerts, those sorts of things that will change and adapt as the circumstances change and adapt," he said.

Military officials say the patrols, including round-the-clock flights over New York and Washington, have put an enormous strain on aircraft and their crews.