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US Reports Heavy Fighting with Afghan Rebels - 2003-01-28

American and Afghan forces are engaged in a heavy battle with armed rebels in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. military says at least 18 rebels have been killed in more than 24 hours of fighting, in what they are calling the largest-scale operation against enemy forces in Afghanistan in more than nine months.

The last serious battle was Operation Anaconda in March, which was the biggest U.S. ground offensive to flush out Taleban militants and al-Qaida terrorists from caves in the eastern part of the country.

The fighting now is taking place in the mountainous region of Atghar, in Zabul province, close to the Pakistani border.

The Americans say it began Monday when Special Forces soldiers came under small arms fire while clearing a compound north of Spin Boldak. One of the assailants was killed, while another was detained. The detained suspect is said to have disclosed under questioning that about 80 enemy fighters were regrouping in the mountainous area.

Coalition force aircraft were dispatched to bomb the rebel position.

Spokesman Roger King at the U.S. military headquarters at Bagram Air Base, Roger King, gave details, saying "enemy forces were engaged throughout the night and the action still continues. At least 18 enemy personnel have been killed. No coalition casualties have been reported," he said.

"A total of 19 JDAMs, which are 2,000 pound bombs, were dropped by the B-1s [bombers] during the course of yesterday [Monday] evening and last night. Two GBU-12, which are 500-pound guided bombs were dropped by F-16s [fighter jets] from the European partner air forces. And there were repeated gun engagements by the AC-130 [airplane] and the AH-64 Apache [helicopter]."

The U.S. military says it believes the fighters are closely linked with Hezb-e-Islami movement of renegade Afghan leader, Gulbuddin Hematyar. He is suspected of attempting to consolidate with remnants of al-Qaida and the Taleban.

Since the fall of Taleban-rule in Afghanistan last year, opponents of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul have waged a low-level guerilla war along the mountains and historically lawless frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. American and Afghan officials say the rebels have been hiding on the Pakistani side of the border.

Pakistan is closely cooperating with the U.S.-led anti-terrorism forces and has deployed some 60,000 troops in the mountainous region to track down the militants.