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U.S., Afghan forces press attack on al Qaeda

Camera caught Navy SEAL being executed

Much of the fighting in Operation Anaconda is at elevations above 11,000 feet, where thin air makes breathing difficult.  

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- As U.S., allied and Afghan forces Tuesday pounded al Qaeda and Taliban fighters hiding in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan's Paktia province, new facts emerged about how seven U.S. service members were killed in fighting one day earlier.

About 2,000 U.S., allied and Afghan fighters are involved in combat, dubbed Operation Anaconda, which began with intense bombing Friday night near the Paktia provincial capital of Gardez about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Kabul.

U.S. officials estimated there were still "several hundred" pro-Taliban fighters in an area near Gardez and that defeating them may take a week to 10 days.

"They are extraordinarily well dug-in and expected to fight to the death," an official said, acknowledging "it is an awful place to fight a war."

CNN's Barbara Starr describes how two U.S. helicopters came under enemy ground fire by al Qaeda and Taliban fighters (March 5)

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CNN's Candy Crowley talks with retired Gen. George Harrison and CNN's Barbara Starr about U.S. military action in eastern Afghanistan (March 5)

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CNN's Nic Robertson reports tension pervades between some ethnic groups in eastern Afghanistan amid fighting in Paktia province (March 5)

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Names of service members killed in Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan: 
Spc. Marc A. Anderson, 30, Brandon, Florida  
Pfc. Matthew A. Commons, 21, Boulder City, Nevada  
Sgt. Bradley S. Crose, 27, Orange Park, Florida  
Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman, 34, Wade, North Carolina  
Sgt. Philip J. Svitak, 31, Joplin, Missouri  
Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts, 32, Woodland, California  
Air Force: 
Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, 36, Waco, Texas  
Senior Airman Jason D. Cunningham, 26, Camarillo, California  
Images from Operation Anaconda 
Map of Afghanistan  showing the location of the fighting
Operation Anaconda 

Much of the fighting is at elevations above 11,000 feet, where thin air makes breathing difficult. The altitude is also near the flight limit for some U.S. combat helicopters, officials said.

At the same time, sources in the Afghan Defense Ministry said front-line commanders reported significant advancement in Gardez and Shahi-kot.

A top ministry official said the interim government planned to declare Wednesday that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters have been defeated in Paktia, a province along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

Pentagon sources had no immediate comment. But Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai scheduled a news conference Wednesday morning with Defense Minister Gen. Qassim Fahim and top military commanders to discuss the fighting, according to the Afghan official, who asked not to be identified.

Eight American soldiers have been killed since the operation began and as many as 40 wounded. An undetermined number of Afghan forces also have died in the operation, including at least four killed over the weekend.

Earlier Tuesday, a minister of the interim Afghan government said al Qaeda fighters were receiving financial help from Arabs and Iranians in "secret ways."

Amanullah Khan Zadran, minister of border affairs, said Afghan, allied and U.S. troops have surrounded about 250 Chechen soldiers and 150 Arab fighters in the area, blocking their route to join the larger al Qaeda force.

Meanwhile, an attack by al Qaeda and Taliban forces on a U.S. operating base near Khost -- closer to the Pakistan border and southeast of Gardez -- was a diversionary tactic designed to distract attention from forces trying to reach Gardez, a senior Afghan intelligence official said Tuesday.

A military transport plane carrying the remains of seven of the Americans landed Tuesday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. They were scheduled to arrive Wednesday in the United States.

The description of how they died was one of the most detailed accounts of the deadliest day in the war against terrorism for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell out of on helicopter Monday as it was taking off quickly after it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in an area of heavy fighting. (Full Story)

As U.S. commanders watched helplessly, a video camera on a unmanned surveillance aircraft showed Roberts being captured and executed, a military official said Tuesday.

"We saw him on the Predator being dragged off by three al Qaeda men," said Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck.

The casket of a U.S. service member killed in Afghanistan is placed in a hearse at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
The casket of a U.S. service member killed in Afghanistan is placed in a hearse at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.  

A second helicopter flying the same area came under fire and made a hard landing.

The troops onboard were trapped under heavy fire for 12-14 hours until they could be rescued. During that time, six Americans troops were killed and 11 were wounded.

A day later, U.S. helicopters and fighter jets spotted al Qaeda and Taliban fighters out in the open.

"On Tuesday we caught several hundred of them with RPGs and mortars heading toward the fight. We body slammed them today and killed hundreds of those guys," Hagenbeck said.

The eighth U.S. casualty -- a U.S. Special Forces soldier -- was killed in fighting Saturday.

Fifteen of the injured soldiers were taken to Incirlik Air Base in eastern Turkey, and some or all of them could be brought to a military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, officials said.

Coalition countries participating in the operation include Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway.

-- CNN producers Rose Arce and Alex Quade in Kabul contributed to this report.




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