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Operation Anaconda kills 800 in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An estimated 800 al Qaeda and Taliban fighters died trying to stave off a 12-day U.S. and allied assault in eastern Afghanistan's Shah-e-kot Valley, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Afghan forces fighting alongside U.S. troops seized control Wednesday of the last remaining high ground previously controlled by hold-out Taliban and al Qaeda, said Maj. Brian Hilferty, a U.S. Central Command spokesman.

Warning: This video contains graphic images. CNN's Nic Robertson inspects the front line around Shah-e-kot in Operation Anaconda (March 13)

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No senior al Qaeda leaders were killed in the campaign dubbed Operation Anaconda, U.S. officials said. But officials stressed that the slain fighters who once posed a direct threat to Afghanistan's interim government headed by Hamid Karzai are now gone.

U.S. forces killed a large number of Chechen and Uzbek fighters, the Pentagon said. Chechnya, a breakaway Russian province, and Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic, have been fighting Islamic insurgencies for years.

Resistance to continued operations in Afghanistan's Paktia province was light Wednesday, Hilferty said.

"We'd love to have them surrender, but so far they've all decided to die," he said.

Concerned some al Qaeda may flee the region, U.S. forces are watching escape routes south and west into Pakistan, according to officials.

The U.S. military is also conducting reconnaissance against other suspected al Qaeda strongholds northwest of Kandahar and in southern Afghanistan.

"The coalition continues to re-position forces, as we have from the very beginning," Hilferty said. "But we still have about 1,500 soldiers on the ground in the objective area, aggressively searching for the terrorists."

None of these additional pockets -- mainly in southeastern Afghanistan -- are thought to be as large as the one near Gardez, capital of Paktia province.

Nearly 600 American troops -- almost half the U.S. ground force participating in Operation Anaconda -- had withdrawn by Wednesday. Most of the U.S. troops were at Bagram air base north of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Several hundred Afghan fighters, meanwhile, have joined about 40 U.S. Special Forces in the village of Shah-e-kot.

-- CNN correspondents Nic Robertson and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.




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