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U.S.-led strikes target al Qaeda haven

Members of a U.S. Marine expeditionary unit roll through Haji Deh, a small village south of Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Members of a U.S. Marine expeditionary unit roll through Haji Deh, a small village south of Kandahar, Afghanistan.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S.-led airstrikes Monday focused on an Afghan province long considered an al Qaeda stronghold, a Pentagon spokesman said.

U.S. and coalition warplanes launched intensive raids on targets near the Pakistani border town of Miram Shah over the weekend and into Monday. U.S. forces have been trying to prevent Taliban and al Qaeda fighters from either regrouping or fleeing to Pakistan.

Raids also concentrated on the area around the city of Khowst, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) southwest of Jalalabad, where Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network operated a training and supply camp at Zawara.

"Paktia province had previously been a support haven of al Qaeda and the Taliban," said Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman. "There are obviously still al Qaeda and pro-Taliban that are loose there, and we're continuing to find them, and we're continuing to strike their equipment as we've found them."

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A Green Beret sergeant was killed Friday in an ambush in the same region near the Pakistani border.

A steady string of bombing runs near Miram Shah has been reported since 4 p.m. Sunday (6:30 a.m. EST). People in the region said they suspect that some al Qaeda or Taliban members may be hiding in the Zawara area, and intelligence reports continue to provide evidence of al Qaeda in the region, U.S. officials said.

"This also is an area that we did not previously have a lot of anti-Taliban coordination or connection with as we had initially in the north and as we have seen around Kandahar," Stufflebeem said. "So to say it's a more dangerous area than the others right now is probably accurate."

Bin Laden used the Zawara camp in the past, but Stufflebeem declined to say whether the al Qaeda leader had been there recently. The spokesman said the Pentagon was "stepping back" from speculation about the whereabouts of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar or bin Laden.

"We are going to stop chasing, if you will, the shadows of where we thought he was and focus more on the entire picture of the country, where these pockets of resistance are," Stufflebeem said.

The most recent airstrikes involved Navy F/A-18s and F-16s striking al Qaeda machine-gun emplacements and artillery pieces spotted at Khowst and raids by heavy bombers and AC-130 gunships on the area. Combat helicopters also were taking part, indicating the involvement of U.S. Special Forces.

The Pentagon said airstrikes were ordered against the training camp area after U.S. Marines found tanks and armored personnel carriers in surrounding cave entrances.

U.S. forces also appear to have beefed up their presence around Jalalabad. U.S. military helicopters have been seen taking off from the airport into the Tora Bora region over the past two days, and at least 20 U.S. military all-terrain vehicles were seen going up to Tora Bora on Sunday.

Tora Bora was the target of extensive U.S. attacks in December as anti-Taliban forces battled al Qaeda fighters in the hills. Villagers said targets in the Tora Bora region and the White Mountains were bombed Saturday and Sunday.

-- CNN Correspondents Barbara Starr, Bill Hemmer, Kamal Hyder and producer Ingrid Formanek contributed to this report.




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