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U.S. and coalition troops mount new Afghan offensive

U.S. and coalition forces are mounting fresh offensive operations against al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan
U.S. and coalition forces are mounting fresh offensive operations against al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hundreds of U.S. and coalition troops are spreading out along the northern Afghan-Pakistan border in an effort to stop al Qaeda and Taliban forces who may be regrouping in the area.

The coalition troops are searching caves and structures for weapons and any forces who may still be loyal to the former Taliban regime.

The troops hope to strike at multiple locations at the same time to block off escape routes and cut communications, sources have told CNN.

U.S. officials believe al Qaeda fighters are in the area, moving back and forth across the border with Pakistan.

The total number of troops involved in the ongoing search in the area varies from day to day, other sources said, with 500 to 800 involved in the action at any one time.

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A senior Pentagon official said less than 100 of those troops are from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division. Other U.S. personnel are dedicated to being a "quick reaction force," ready to move in if other troops run into trouble, various sources said.

The coalition forces also include British, Australian and Afghan forces, with air support from Apache helicopter gunships, they said.

Pentagon sources said there has been a gradual build-up of forces in the region over the past few days as the search for al Qaeda has intensified, but the senior official characterized the build-up as part of the "ebb and flow" of Operation Mountain Lion, the coalition's continuing cave-by-cave search in the rugged, mountainous border region.

Intelligence cue

The troops have been "cued by intelligence" to search certain caves, the official said, but so far, few al Qaeda have been found.

However, troops have discovered "thousands" of weapons including rifles, mortars, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.

Other sources said that covering multiple locations at the same time is designed not only to block off escape routes but also to cut off communications and freeze any al Qaeda forces in place for capture, surrender or battle.

The border region has become volatile in recent days. U.S. officials believe al Qaeda fighters are in the area and moving back and forth across the border with Pakistan.

But U.S. officials insist they have no solid intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden or other top al Qaeda leaders, and military officials say the on-going operation in southern Afghanistan is not based on any new belief that bin Laden is there.

Still hiding

U.S. and Afghan troops conducted a major two-week operation in the mountainous region around Gardez in early March. American warplanes dropped more than 2,500 bombs in "Operation Anaconda" on what they said were al Qaeda and Taliban positions.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declined to confirm or deny the troop movements, but told reporters at a briefing that al Qaeda were still hiding in Afghanistan and over the border in Pakistan.

"There is no question but that in the two locations I've said -- in the country and over the borders -- there still are a nontrivial number of those folks that would very much like to take back the country," Reuters reported him as saying.

"It is our task to see that that doesn't happen," Rumsfeld added. He said he did not personally know of any "actionable" intelligence reports suggesting that bin Laden or other leaders of al Qaeda were hiding on either side of the border.

Rumsfeld told reporters travelling with him on a trip to Afghanistan last week that spring could bring a regrouping of remnants of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. But he said the 7,000 U.S. and 5,000 other Western troops in Afghanistan were ready.

-- CNN Washington Correspondents Barbara Starr and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report




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