Operation Anaconda costs 8 U.S. lives
GARDEZ, Afghanistan (CNN) -- About 2,000 troops from the U.S.-led military coalition were engaged in "close-in" combat Monday with small pockets of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the rugged terrain of northeastern Afghanistan as part of an offensive called Operation Anaconda, according to U.S. military officials.
Although Pentagon officials at first said nine U.S. soldiers were killed in action, they later lowered that figure to eight.
About 40 have been wounded but none are believed to have life-threatening injuries, Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, said at an afternoon briefing in Tampa, Florida.
One U.S. Special Forces soldier died during fighting Saturday. The other casualties came Monday, when two helicopters used to reposition forces in the combat zone came under fire while landing.
One soldier died when he apparently fell from a helicopter as it was taking off to leave the area, military officials said. The other casualties came during a firefight that ensued when troops got out of a helicopter that had made a hard landing, Franks said.
At an appearance in Minnesota, President Bush expressed his condolences to the families of the U.S. military personnel who died, but he said he hopes they remember that "the cause is important, the cause is just."
The president said U.S. forces would continue to hunt al Qaeda.
"These are people that if they were to escape could conceivably harm America again. And, therefore, we're going to hunt them down no matter where they try to hide," Bush said.
An undetermined number of Afghan forces have also died in the operation. At least four died over the weekend.
Of the 2,000 coalition troops involved, about half are Afghan forces whose primary mission is to block al Qaeda and Taliban forces from leaving the area, Franks said.
About 800 to 900 U.S. troops are involved in combat operations along with about 200 special operations forces from other international partners in the U.S.-led coalition.
Troops from Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, France and Norway are participating, he said.
The bulk of the U.S. forces are from the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, New York, and the 101st Airborne Division, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
The general acknowledged that this phase of the Afghan war was more dangerous than the previous mostly air operations because more troops on the ground can mean more casualties.
Franks estimated the number of dead al Qaeda and Taliban fighters at between 100 and 200. He said "hundreds" of enemy fighters were believed to be in the target area, which covers 60 to 70 square miles in the Shahi Kot mountains around Gardez, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of the Afghan capital, Kabul.
"Enemy forces in this area are dug in. They're in caves. They're also in natural fighting positions," Franks said. Most are in small groups ranging from a handful to 15 or 20, he said.
"They're using small arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars," the general said. "And I've also seen reports of man-portable surface-to-air missile systems, although we have not had any aircraft struck by those systems."
Elevations in the area range from 8,000 to 12,000 feet, with night temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees below zero Celsius), Franks said.
"This is just very hard work for these soldiers who are up there doing it," he said.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at an earlier Pentagon briefing that the Taliban and al Qaeda forces were "determined, they're dangerous, they will not give up without a fight.
"They are hiding in the villages and in the mountains and just across the borders in a number of directions from Afghanistan, and they're waiting for their opportunities."
Franks said he was not certain the forces they were attacking were in the process of regrouping or whether they had just returned to familiar ground after their Taliban supporters had lost power.
"I do not have a sense of large reconstitution efforts inside Afghanistan," he said.
When asked if the forces could be fighting to protect Osama bin Laden or Mullah Mohammed Omar, Franks said it would be difficult to say.
Franks said coalition forces were being careful of civilians and that some detainees were being questioned to determine whether they were friendly locals.
But Rumsfeld pointed out that it is easy for the al Qaeda and Taliban to blend into the countryside and villages to regroup, partly because of the Afghan terrain. It's also possible some have gone into neighboring countries, then returned.
"The stronger the interim government gets, the more effective the security situation in the country gets, the less likely that there will be substantial operations like this. But that's some distance off," Rumsfeld said.
When asked if the U.S. would send more troops or weapons to the area, Rumsfeld said he was not taking anything off the table.
A senior Pentagon official said the Bush administration may send more troops to the Gardez area. Other troops have been earmarked to join the fighting if needed.
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