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Heavy fighting in eastern Afghanistan

U.S. Army soldiers fire their mortar at suspected al Qaeda-Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan.
U.S. Army soldiers fire their mortar at suspected al Qaeda-Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan.  

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Heavy fighting erupted in eastern Afghanistan on Monday morning, as allied aircraft dropped bombs and fired missiles on Taliban and al Qaeda positions after more than a week of fighting.

U.S. and coalition forces are finding "smaller pockets" of the enemy fighters, a U.S. Army spokesman said Monday, six months after the terrorist attacks on the United States that led to the deployment of troops here.

Although Maj. Bryan Hilferty characterized the fighting near Gardez as "very light" in the past day, the battle picked up Monday morning, according to CNN's Nic Robertson, who is about one mile from the front lines.

"What we are seeing from here: sustained air bombing and missile attacks by allied aircraft," Robertson reported. "Anaconda appears to be going on full force."

He reported B-2 bombers and A-10 tank aircraft flying overhead throughout the morning. Also, as many as 400 Afghan reinforcement troops were seen heading to the front lines of the battle, dubbed "Operation Anaconda." The troops are part of a contingent of 600 to 1,000 promised by Afghanistan's interim defense ministry several days ago.

The front lines of the battle are virtually unchanged since the operation began March 2.

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Earlier Monday, Hilferty said U.S. forces had not suffered casualties in the past day, though five Afghan soldiers working with the United States were wounded.

"In fact, in the past four days, we have not received sustained or accurate enemy fires," he told reporters. "The al Qaeda and Taliban extremists seem to be in much smaller pockets now, not the large concentrations that we saw the first few days."

"We'll continue to work our way through this area until we are satisfied that we have taken out all of the al Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban extremists," he said. As Afghan forces apply pressure from the north and west, the United States is providing close air support to pinpoint enemy positions.

Coalition fighters, he said, have destroyed mortars and large-caliber weapons, though he did not have information on what missiles they have struck.

Hilferty said the troops have detainees in their custody. He refused to say how many.

"The hunt continues, Anaconda continues," he said. "The war in Afghanistan is not over."

On Sunday, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that Operation Anaconda could go on for some time.

"We are in their back yard, [and] we're fighting in tough conditions," Myers told CNN. "When the area is cleared of al Qaeda and Taliban, we'll be finished."

Myers said U.S. forces and their Afghan allies were "working together" to develop a strategy to root out enemy fighters remaining in the region.

Afghan fighters unload food, weapons and other supplies at a base on the outskirts of Gardez.  

Pentagon officials said al Qaeda and Taliban fighters appeared to have been tipped off about the ground offensive earlier this week. An Afghan unit led by Gen. Zia Lodin did not perform as well as the officials hoped and U.S. forces had to scramble to fill holes left by the Afghan troops.

Residents of the region have criticized the latest U.S.-led campaign and have assisted al Qaeda and Taliban forces, according to local Afghan officials.

Myers said U.S. forces would continue to target pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda in Paktia province and elsewhere in Afghanistan. But the responsibility for uprooting the enemy ultimately rests with the Afghan army, he said.

"In the end, we've got to train Afghan forces to deal with these pockets themselves," he said. "That's another thing we're engaged in -- helping train and better equip an Afghan national army."




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