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U.S. eyes spring offensive in Afghanistan

Hunt for bin Laden focuses on eastern Afghanistan

From Barbara Starr
CNN Washington Bureau

Canadian troops secure the scene of a bombing this week in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Canadian troops secure the scene of a bombing this week in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

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CNN's Jamie McIntyre reports the U.S. is gearing up for a spring offensive in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
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A springtime offensive would focus on catching Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar.
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Intelligence sources say the terror leader may be near the Afghan city of Khost.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. military is planning a spring offensive against remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, a senior Defense Department official has said.

Authorities have ordered troops, supplies and logistics into place to carry out the operation, the official said Wednesday, without detailing whether the new offensive would require more troops.

The news comes amid increased violence in Afghanistan and on a day in which the U.S. military said it thinks it will find Osama bin Laden and fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in eastern Afghanistan.

The manhunt for bin Laden is now in its third year but a military spokesman said confidence is high that he will be captured.

"I can say that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar represent a threat to the world, and they need to be destroyed and we believe we will catch them in the next year," U.S. Army Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a coalition spokesman, said Wednesday.

In December, the U.S. military said it was launching a major offensive against al Qaeda and the Taliban, sending troops into the southern and eastern parts of the country along the Pakistan border, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Operation Avalanche was an attempt to catch Taliban and al Qaeda guerillas before they hunkered down for the winter, Hilferty said in December. (Full story) That offensive continues.

The guerillas typically form small groups once warm weather arrives, the official said Wednesday. The new offensive is designed to keep opposition forces from regrouping after laying low during the winter, the official said.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban, which had provided haven for al Qaeda before the September 11 attacks.

About 8,500 Americans are among the 11,500 international troops that remain in Afghanistan. Separately, 5,000 troops under NATO command act as peacekeepers in the capital, Kabul.

The intelligence sources on bin Laden pointed to the tape made five years ago that was shot at a terrorist camp near the city of Khost and said he was thought to have revisited that area sometime recently.

Bin Laden's biographer, Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir, told CNN he had heard similar information from Arab fighters he encountered in Afghanistan late last year.

"Those Arabs said he is roaming between southern Afghanistan and eastern Afghanistan. And according to them, he spent some time in Khost, he spent some time in Gardez, he spent some time in Kunar (province)," Mir said.

Mir said he believes the most recent videotape of bin Laden, which was released last September, was actually shot in the Gardez region of Afghanistan in the spring of 2003. (Full story)

Intelligence sources also have told CNN that they believe bin Laden's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was also seen on that video, is now often traveling separately from bin Laden. (Al-Zawahiri's taped message)

The Taliban has enjoyed a resurgence in areas of Afghanistan, along the rugged Pakistan border.

In an interview last week with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said al Qaeda is operating on both sides of the border and was likely behind recent attempts to kill him. But he said he did not think that the Taliban was regaining strength. (Full story)

"The story is different to what is being told by the media," he said. "Attacks are on the wane, and they are tactical in nature. They are not strategic in nature. There is no strategic threat."

Musharraf has not publicly given permission for U.S. military operations in his country. CIA and special operations forces occasionally have entered Pakistan on classified missions. U.S. officials said they will respect Pakistan sovereignty.

Surging violence has claimed more than 60 lives in the country this month.

In the latest violence, an explosion Wednesday in Kabul killed a British soldier and wounded four other soldiers -- all part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, the British Ministry of Defense confirmed. (Full story)

The blast occurred outside of a British base in the Afghan capital.

It was the second deadly bombing in two days. A suicide bomber struck a NATO truck convoy Tuesday in Kabul, killing a Canadian soldier and an Afghan civilian. Three other Canadian soldiers were hurt. (Full story)

Hours after that attack, NATO's military commander told a U.S. Senate panel the organization will be ramping up operations and troop strength.

The bombings follow a Monday ceremony in which Afghanistan's first post-Taliban constitution went into effect.

The news of a spring offensive was first reported in Wednesday's Chicago Tribune. The newspaper said the U.S. military planned to enter Pakistan with the goal of destroying al Qaeda. The paper said the military was concerned about two recent assassination attempts on the Pakistan president as well as signs that al Qaeda and the Taliban are regrouping in Afghanistan.

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