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Ten dead in Afghan battle

UK marine
A British Royal Marine commando adjusts the plate on his bulletproof vest before setting out on Operation Condor  

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- The U.S. army said on Saturday that coalition warplanes had killed about 10 people in an operation against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan.

A 1,000-strong coalition force led by British Royal Marines has surrounded the rugged Khost-Paktia region in a new offensive named "Operation Condor."

A spokesman for UK marines said on Saturday morning there had not yet been any contact with the enemy.

A U.S. army spokesman denied a report by the private Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) that U.S. planes pounded the village of Bul Khil in Khost province for several hours on Thursday night after U.S. helicopter crew mistook traditional firing at a wedding for an attack.

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U.S. army spokesman Bryan Hilferty said the air attack was conducted after coalition forces came under fire from suspected Islamic militants belonging to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and their Taliban allies.

"About 10 people were killed in Thursday night's bombing on an uninhabited ridge line," he told Reuters at Bagram air base, the headquarters of the U.S.-led led coalition. "I believe the report about the wedding is all wrong."

He added: "We believe this is an al Qaeda and Taliban area. There were people on the ridge line who fired heavy weapons on an Australian patrol and then chased them. We have a right to self defence."

On Friday the top British commander in the coalition, Brig. Roger Lane, said at Bagram that about 1,000 troops, mostly Royal Marines, were battling a "substantial force" of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the mountains.

But British Royal Marines spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ben Curry said on Saturday: "There has been no combat, we have established a forward operating base and are now clearing the area."

The current operation might not result in confrontation with any enemy fighters, a defence source later told the UK's Press Association.

Intelligence suggested the enemy who attacked the Australian special forces on Thursday, thought to number double figures, were still in the area.

If they were encountered they would be given away by their weapons, which include a 120mm mortar and heavy .5 calibre machine guns, he said.

American, British and Australian forces were in "blocking" positions as the Royal Marines "sweep" the area looking for them but they still might escape.

"We know we have positive intelligence that these people are al Qaeda or Taliban," he told PA.

"Can I guarantee that they will engage the enemy? No."

The search may not be over until Monday, he added. Pushed on how many al Qaida or Taliban they were searching for he repeated that the force was thought to be in double figures, adding: "Whether it is 20 or 60 I don't know."

British military officials had said on Friday there were substantial numbers of enemy fighters in the area after an Australian SAS team came under five hours of firing.

Curry said there had been no casualties in the new operation, but two British soldiers were brought back to Bagram base, one suffering from an unidentified disease that has struck the Marines and the other from high altitude.

Nearly 40 soldiers, mostly medical personnel, have gone down with diarrhoea and vomiting which struck the British field hospital at Bagram. Nine people have been evacuated to Europe.

Operation Condor is being conducted at heights of between 6,000 to 8,000 feet (1,800 to 2,400 metres) where the air is thin. Coalition jets and helicopters have been taking off from Bagram all day to support the ground troops.

"We have gone out in support. If we come across al Qaeda, we will engage, we are searching," Curry said.

The 1,700-strong Marines had earlier this month ended a two-week sweep of the mountains in eastern Afghanistan named "Operation Snipe" but did not encounter a single enemy fighter.

British forces said they had dealt a "significant blow" to al Qaeda's ability to mount future terrorist strikes by blowing up a huge ammunition dump located in several caves in Paktia province.


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