U.S. warplanes pummel suspected al Qaeda targets
KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- U.S. bombers, fighter jets and gunships unleashed a non-stop bombardment on suspected al Qaeda and Taliban forces battling Afghan, coalition and U.S. troops Sunday in eastern Afghanistan.
The attack is the largest offensive by U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan this year, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said.
"Firefights have been intense at times, in heavy combat actions," U.S. Army Maj. A.C. Roper said.
American warplanes have dropped more than 270 precision-guided and unguided bombs since the operation began late Friday, U.S. officials said.
Aided by U.S. airstrikes, forces loyal to the interim Afghan administration beat back about 500 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Lowgar, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Kabul, the Afghanistan Intelligence Ministry said Sunday. No details on casualties were immediately available.
Low-flying U.S. aircraft, including AC-130 gunships and Apache helicopters, maintained a clear advantage in the air Sunday, U.S. military officials said.
"The weather is cold but clear today, so there will be no restrictions on aircraft flying in the area," Central Command's Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said. "And there is a lot of snow on the ground for the (enemy) soldiers to slog through."
The targets include "enemy forces occupying a series of cave complexes" in Patkia province, Roper said, as well as vehicles, mortars and anti-artillery sites. The United States has maintained a base in the province's capital, Gardez, for the last two months, sources told CNN.
Ground troops also have moved into the remote, rugged terrain of the Shahi Kot mountains, with one U.S. soldier and three Afghans dying during battles Saturday, according to Central Command. An unspecified number of Afghan and U.S. forces were injured in the gunfights, but authorities said none of the U.S. injuries were life-threatening.
Earlier, Afghan soldiers returning from the front lines said they were badly outnumbered in their initial assaults. Some estimated as many as 5,000 al Qaeda fighters were holed up near Shahi Kot, southwest of Gardez and about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Kabul.
Some Apaches, believed to be flown by members of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division based at Kandahar's airport, have been damaged by enemy fire, but no U.S. planes have been shot down, U.S. officials said.
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