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US, Coalition Forces Search for Survivors of Afghan Battle - 2003-01-29

U.S. and Afghan forces are searching for survivors of a fierce battle with rebels in the southern mountains of Afghanistan. At least 18 rebels were killed in a fight with what U.S. military officials say was the largest enemy force encountered in more than nine months.

U.S. military officials say the fighting has died down in the mountainous region near the border town of Spin Boldak. A spokesman for the U.S. military, Roger King, says hundreds of American and Afghan soldiers have begun a search operation in the area to find survivors of the fierce battle.

He says there is a huge cave network in the mountains and that the search will continue to ensure the coalition forces do not miss anything or anybody.

The fighting began Monday when U.S. special forces soldiers came under small arms fire while clearing a mud-walled compound. U.S. officials say one of the attackers was killed. Another was arrested and told interrogators that supporters and members of the ousted Taleban regime were trying to regroup in the mountains where the fighting took place.

U.S. and allied warplanes then bombed the mountain cave complex, killing at least 18 rebel fighters. The loyalties of the rebels have not yet been determined, but U.S. military officials say they suspect they are loyal to renegade Afghan leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who heads the Hezb-e-Islami movement.

Afghan and U.S. officials suspect that Mr. Hekmatyar is attempting to consolidate remnants of the al-Qaida terrorist network and the Taleban into a fighting force.

The Afghan warlord has condemned the presence of U.S. led forces in the country and has been urging Afghans to wage a holy war against the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.

On Tuesday, President Bush spoke to President Karzai by telephone and reassured him that the United States remains committed to establishing a democratic and stable Afghanistan.