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US Soldiers Still Face Threats in Afghanistan - 2002-08-01

Last Saturday, American troops in Afghanistan ran into the heaviest combat they have seen since an offensive in March against remnants of the al-Qaida and Taleban forces. The battle left five Americans wounded and two of their Afghan allies killed. There were an undetermined number of al-Qaida casualties. VOA's Michael Drudge spoke with American soldiers who survived the four-hour battle.

The American troops and their Afghan militia allies were looking for remnants of the al-Qaida terrorist network in a village in Khost Province, in southeastern Afghanistan.

They found an al-Qaida suspect in a house that morning. He told them there were more al-Qaida in a nearby compound. Afghan militia men checked out the place first. They came back and told the Americans the occupants were local villagers, not the mostly Arabic al-Qaida.

Two militiamen then went back to tell the occupants the Americans wanted to search the place. The American company commander, Army Captain Chris Cirino, said that's when the battle erupted.

"The two Afghan militia soldiers went back into the compound through a doorway. Upon entering they were immediately fired upon by the occupants inside. Both were killed instantly," he said.

Seconds later, hand grenades came flying over the compound wall toward the American troops outside. Shrapnel tore into the leg and arm of Specialist Michael Rewakowski. Still, he had the presence of mind to lay down covering fire while an even more seriously wounded soldier was carried off for medical treatment.

Specialist Rewakowski said the whole thing happened faster than he could imagine.

"Just the suddenness of it surprised me," he said. "The fact that it happened didn't totally surprise me. I knew that something like that was possible."

Private First Class Brian Worth got shrapnel wounds to his back during the battle, as Captain Cirino explained.

"Worth received his wound probably from shrapnel that should have hit me. I was standing two feet [less than one meter] away from him. I heard him yell, 'Grenade!' He basically slammed into the back of me as the grenade fragments hit him," said Captain Cirino. "That young soldier refused to be evacuated. I saw his wound. I said, 'We need to get you back to the medics.' He said, 'No sir, I want to stay here and fight.' He's a hero in my mind, and I couldn't be more proud."

Private Worth said the battle proves that Afghanistan is still a dangerous place. "It's kind of ironic. Public perception is that things are kind of dying down here. You know, there's kind of a lull in the fighting. But then this happened. But they had told us when we were going, not to believe that," he said. "There's a very real threat there, and anyone who has been there can feel it in the air - just looking at the people. It's not a very hospitable environment."

Captain Cirino said that as the grenades flew, he radioed in for air support. The warplanes arrived quickly and pounded the compound for about two hours. Captain Cirino said when the bombing stopped, the place had been reduced to rubble.

"At the conclusion of the close air support, there was basically nothing left of this compound standing. A couple of scattered walls. You couldn't see in parts of it, but most of the trees had been blown down in the surrounding area," he explained. "And, I remember talking to the commander on the scene there and saying, 'Nobody could have possible lived through that. There's absolutely no way.' "

But he was wrong. As a team of about 10 American soldiers walked in to assess the situation, yet another grenade went off, inflicting a serious head wound on a Special Forces soldier.

That grenade was tossed by an enemy soldier who had survived the bombardment. American troops then shot him, but he survived that as well. The man is now a prisoner. He is getting treatment from U.S. Army doctors at the Bagram hospital. He is expected to live and will face interrogation.

Captain Cirino said that shows the kind of enemy the Americans face in Afghanistan.

"I realize what we're up against here," he acknowledged. "These are dedicated, dedicated people. They believe in what they are doing, no matter how twisted it might be. And, I knew from minute one that those soldiers in there, we were going to have to fight until they were dead. They were not going to come out."

Still, Captain Cirino said his men are ready, if the enemy wants to fight. "I honestly believe that the al-Qaida and Taleban would love to kill as many Americans as they can, whether it's overseas or in America," he said. "And, we knew that coming here. Every soldier in my company, these soldiers beside me, we have resolved to do a job here and we're going to stay until it's done."

The battle near Khost ended with two Afghan militiamen killed and five Americans wounded. The American troops saw the bodies of three dead enemy soldiers. They suspect more are buried under the rubble. And, there is the one suspected al-Qaida prisoner, the incredible survivor who tried to fight to the death, but in the end refused to die.