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Americans, Afghans in major battle with al Qaeda

U.S. soldier killed in Afghan fighting

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Afghan and American forces targeted hundreds of al Qaeda and other fighters from the air and on the ground early Sunday in the largest offensive in Afghanistan this year.

At least one U.S. soldier and three Afghan soldiers died in the fighting, the U.S. Central Command said.

An unspecified number of U.S. and Afghan soldiers were wounded in the firefight near the town of Gardez, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Kabul, the capital.

The operation began Friday night with U.S. B-52 strikes on suspected al Qaeda and Taliban positions at Shahi-kot, southwest of Gardez, Afghan and U.S. officials said.

Early Saturday, 500 to 600 Afghan soldiers and a contingent of troops believed to be from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division launched a ground offensive, officials said.

By Sunday, U.S. warplanes had dropped more than 80 bombs in support of an operation that "could last for some time," U.S. military sources said.

Al Qaeda and allied fighters from outside Afghanistan were defending high ground with machine gun fire during the assault, according to U.S. military sources.

U.S. Department of Defense file video of the new thermobaric bomb used for the first time Saturday in Afghanistan. (March 2)

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 Thermobaric bomb debuts
Name: BLU-118/B

Size: Warhead fitted to 2,000-pound missile (the BLU-109)

Guidance: Attached to laser-guidance packages, making it a "smart" weapon

Use: Sends fireballs deep into a cave or tunnel by releasing energy for a longer period of time than a conventional weapon, thus creating high temperatures (Full story)

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Afghan fighters returning from the front lines Saturday said they were badly outnumbered and were being pushed back by al Qaeda forces, who have been holding out in the region for weeks.

Some of the returning soldiers said that as many as 5,000 al Qaeda fighters may be engaged with the Afghans and Americans.

Apache helicopters from the 101st, which is based at the Kandahar airport in southern Afghanistan, came under small arms fire while supporting ground troops. The choppers did a "devastating" job against enemy fighters, military sources told CNN.

Safi Ulla-khan, an assistant to the Shahi-kot governing council, reported seeing American transport helicopters and helicopter gunships flying, bombing and landing at a local base as American ground troops fought alongside Afghan soldiers.

U.S. military officials told CNN Saturday that a new weapon -- a thermobaric bomb -- made its debut as part of the offensive.

One of the bombs was dropped on a cave in the region, but the officials would not specify the target.

Thermobaric bombs are "fuel-rich" weapons designed to fill tunnels with fireballs and destroy targets hidden in caves.

They were first tested in December and rushed into production for use against the underground complexes that honeycomb Afghanistan.

At Kabul bus stations, where vehicles arrived carrying travelers from Gardez, witnesses said they heard the bombing and saw U.S. troops in the region.

"There was a stronghold of Taliban in Shahi-kot which now belongs to local mujahedeen," said Latif, a resident of the Shahi-kot region who arrived in Kabul Saturday morning. "We saw some American troops who were heading in that direction."

The nearby border with Pakistan has been sealed for several months to block al Qaeda members from escaping, but residents report that people still filter across it. Pakistan took steps early Saturday to tighten it.

In Friday's Pentagon press briefing, Brig. Gen. John Rosa said "hundreds" of al Qaeda and Taliban had regrouped in the area.

"We have done a lot in terms of debilitating the al Qaeda," Assistant Secretary of Defense Tori Clarke said Friday. "But we've said all along ... that for some time there would be pockets of resistance, that there would be al Qaeda, there would be firefights."

An Afghan official said he believed the area near Gardez would be cleared of enemy forces "soon, God willing."

-- Pentagon correspondents Barbara Starr and Jonathan Aiken and CNN military analyst Wesley Clark contributed to this report.




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