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Thursday, March 7, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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More troops may join fierce ground battle

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. commander of the war in Afghanistan raised the possibility yesterday of ordering more troops and firepower into the battle against a spread-out and dug-in force of al-Qaida fighters.

U.S. forces and their Afghan allies engaged al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in fierce close combat in the hills and mountains of eastern Afghanistan yesterday as both sides poured in reinforcements for the largest ground battle of the war.

Gen. Tommy Franks, after briefing President Bush on the war, told a Pentagon news conference he was confident the U.S.-led assault, code-named Operation Anaconda, would succeed but he would not predict how long it might take. He described the "very messy" situation on the ground as increasingly dangerous.

The four-star Army general said he was certain that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would support him in expanding the U.S. force in Afghanistan if that turned out to be necessary.

Franks stressed that he had not sought an increase but had thousands of troops in the region. Franks, who commands all U.S. forces in an area that includes the Horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, said he has about 60,000 forces in the vicinity. Most of the 5,300 inside Afghanistan are at Kandahar or Bagram air base. Other troops are in Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan.

After talking with Franks, Bush said: "There's a fierce battle waging. But we're winning that battle. I'm so sad we lose life. My heart breaks when I think about the moms and dads or wives or children of those who have lost their life. But we defend freedom, and we're fighting for freedom, and we must continue to fight for freedom."

Of the 5,300 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, about 1,100 are committed to the fight in the snowy peaks in Paktia province to rout hundreds of fighters believed to have regrouped since the Taliban fell.

Franks said the U.S. force, which began at about 800 men, has grown by 200 or 300 in recent days. They are regular troops from the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain divisions, as well as special-operations troops. The force includes about 200 commandos from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway, in addition to several hundred Afghans. Most of the Afghans are blocking escape routes, but they also include front-line fighters in the 60-square-mile area south of the city of Gardez.

The U.S. also added 12 additional Apache helicopter gunships to the battle on the heels of five Marine Cobra attack helicopters that were brought in Tuesday.

Army Maj. Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck, speaking to reporters from the U.S. base in Bagram, about 35 miles north of Kabul, said two Apaches were hit by rocket-propelled grenades, one "right in the nose cone."

Even after that and after one Apache was hit by small arms fire, he said, "They continued to refuel and get back in the fight, and they really made a difference for us."

Air Force AC-130 gunships armed with howitzers, cannons and Gatling guns also are in use as allied troops seek out al-Qaida positions and search cave complexes.

Hagenbeck, commander of the 10th Mountain Division leading the five-day U.S. offensive, said the United States had gained the upper hand in the battle after an early setback in which eight GIs were killed.

Hagenbeck said American troops had killed "several hundred" al-Qaida and Taliban fighters over the last day. "We believe that among the dead are some of the higher-ranking leaders."

U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility that the enemy forces, described by Franks as fierce, dedicated fighters, are protecting a senior al-Qaida leader, perhaps even Osama bin Laden.

Opposition forces also increased their numbers, Hagenbeck said: "The local fundamentalists have called a jihad against the Americans and their coalition partners, and they have been fueling, infiltrating fighters into this area."

Intelligence estimates are that there are about 350 fighters remaining alive in the hills and an equal number were killed, he said. At the start of the offensive last Friday night, U.S. defense officials had estimated the number of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in the area at between 200 and 400.

Franks and Rumsfeld, meanwhile, said they did not know whether Hagenbeck was correct on Tuesday in concluding, based on a surveillance video, that three al-Qaida fighters had captured and executed Navy SEAL Neil Roberts, who fell from an MH-47 Chinook helicopter on Monday.

"I would tell you, from all indications, the al-Qaida executed him," Hagenbeck said.

Franks said he was in no position to question Hagenbeck's account, but added: "I don't know that for myself yet. ... I think there are a variety of possibilities."

Rumsfeld said that "we may never know" what happened when the Chinook landed early Monday and was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. Roberts was either outside of the helicopter or fell when the pilot made an emergency lift-off, Rumsfeld said, and may have been shot while in the helicopter or on the ground.

Six other U.S. servicemen died later Monday when another Chinook, landing less than a mile away, came under heavy fire.

In other developments:

• Two German and three Danish peacekeepers were killed and seven others were wounded in a powerful explosion as they prepared to blow up two Soviet-era SA-3 antiaircraft missiles. The deaths among the 4,500-strong peacekeeping force, which is patrolling Kabul, the Afghan capital, and collecting weapons from the combatants, could fuel protests in both countries by opponents of participation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

Germany has about 700 soldiers in Afghanistan. Denmark's contingent numbers about 50, most of them de-mining specialists.

• Afghan soldiers urged residents of the region in Paktia province to turn in al-Qaida warriors, offering a $4,000 reward for each foreign fighter captured alive.

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