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US Military on Defensive Over Afghan Body Count

19 March 2002

The U.S. military was on the defensive Tuesday over suggestions its "body count" from the biggest battle of the Afghan War was inflated and that large numbers of Taliban and al Qaeda forces had escaped.

Although "Operation Anaconda" is now officially over and was declared an "unqualified and absolute success" by the United States for killing hundreds of rebels, Afghan commanders said many of the 1,000 rebels escaped over rugged mountains to border areas of nearby Pakistan.

"Only 50 to 60 were killed. Most of them escaped," said Gulbuddin, a top aide to Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim.

Asked about the U.S. casualty figures of hundreds dead, Gulbuddin told Reuters: "No, no. It is not so. Most scattered across the mountains and fled."

U.S. Major-General Frank Hagenbeck, commander of ground forces in Afghanistan, said his forces dealt a "body blow" to the rebels in the battle of Shahi Kot.

"Escaped? Of course, some people got out of Shahi Kot. But I take exception to any supposition that large numbers escaped," he told reporters at Bagram Air Base on the outskirts of Kabul, control point for the operation.

"We destroyed hundreds of al Qaeda's most experienced fighters and terrorists. We destroyed their base of terrorist operations and we eliminated their sanctuary."

He said interviews with detainees and intelligence reports backed up his body count assessment from the fighting near Gardez, capital of Paktia province bordering Pakistan and about 150 km (95 miles) south of Kabul.

Some Afghan battlefield commanders have said many rebels escaped to Pakistan border areas through secret mountain paths. They also said few bodies had been found.

The last of the major battles ended on March 13 when U.S., Canadian and Afghan troops stormed rebel caves and trenches near Gardez.

The focus shifted to a guerrilla war as small bands of fighters from Afghanistan's hard-line Islamic Taliban movement and Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network -- blamed by Washington for the September 11 attacks on the United States -- tried to dodge the allied dragnet.

Bodies shredded by bombing

Hagenbeck said the intense U.S. bombing by B-52s and other aircraft shredded the bodies and left few remains.

As an example, he said that on March 2, the first day of the operation, 40 rebels were sighted in a mud hut and an air strike was called in.

"When the troops went in on the ground afterwards they found 40 pairs of shoes," Hagenbeck said. "All we saw were a couple of body parts sticking out of a 15-foot high mud heap."

Canadian officers, who played a key role in the battle, called the operation a major success but confirmed there had been "few" direct encounters with the enemy.

"Gauging the success of any mission is more than just the number of enemy killed," said Canadian Commodore Jean-Pierre Thiffault, who is based at U.S. Central Command in Florida.

But there was no denying some al Qaeda forces did escape the main fighting and were now on the run.

Hagenbeck said U.S. troops killed 16 people in an attack on Sunday on a four-vehicle convoy carrying al Qaeda guerrillas from the battlefield.

Elite special forces swooped down in helicopters on the convoy, which had been tracked for several hours from the air, about 45 miles (70 km) southwest of Gardez.

Hagenbeck said numerous weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, were found in the vehicles.

Britain announced Monday it was sending up to 1,700 troops to Afghanistan - its largest deployment for combat operations since the 1991 Gulf War - to help U.S. forces take on remaining al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the British troops would start arriving at Bagram in the next few days.

"The United States has formally requested that the UK provide forces to join in future military operations," Hoon told parliament.

Britain already has hundreds of troops in Afghanistan as leader of the International Security Assistance Force - a peacekeeping deployment in the Afghan capital Kabul and its surrounding areas.

Christine Hauser, Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan
Published by Reuters © 2002 Reuters Limited

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