BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -
The U.S. military
was on the defensive Tuesday over suggestions its "body count"
from the biggest battle of the Afghan War was inflated and that
large numbers of Taliban and al Qaeda forces had escaped.
Although "Operation Anaconda" is now officially over and
was declared an "unqualified and absolute success" by the
United States for killing hundreds of rebels, Afghan commanders
said many of the 1,000 rebels escaped over rugged mountains to
border areas of nearby Pakistan.
"Only 50 to 60 were killed. Most of them escaped," said
Gulbuddin, a top aide to Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad
Asked about the U.S. casualty figures of hundreds dead,
Gulbuddin told Reuters: "No, no. It is not so. Most scattered
across the mountains and fled."
U.S. Major-General Frank Hagenbeck, commander of ground
forces in Afghanistan, said his forces dealt a "body blow" to
the rebels in the battle of Shahi Kot.
"Escaped? Of course, some people got out of Shahi Kot. But
I take exception to any supposition that large numbers
escaped," he told reporters at Bagram Air Base on the outskirts
of Kabul, control point for the operation.
"We destroyed hundreds of al Qaeda's most experienced
fighters and terrorists. We destroyed their base of terrorist
operations and we eliminated their sanctuary."
He said interviews with detainees and intelligence reports
backed up his body count assessment from the fighting near
Gardez, capital of Paktia province bordering Pakistan and about
150 km (95 miles) south of Kabul.
Some Afghan battlefield commanders have said many rebels
escaped to Pakistan border areas through secret mountain paths.
They also said few bodies had been found.
The last of the major battles ended on March 13 when U.S.,
Canadian and Afghan troops stormed rebel caves and trenches
The focus shifted to a guerrilla war as small bands of
fighters from Afghanistan's hard-line Islamic Taliban movement
and Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network -- blamed by
Washington for the September 11 attacks on the United States --
tried to dodge the allied dragnet.
BODIES SHREDDED BY BOMBING
Hagenbeck said the intense U.S. bombing by B-52s and other
aircraft shredded the bodies and left few remains.
As an example, he said that on March 2, the first day of
the operation, 40 rebels were sighted in a mud hut and an air
strike was called in.
"When the troops went in on the ground afterwards they
found 40 pairs of shoes," Hagenbeck said. "All we saw were a
couple of body parts sticking out of a 15-foot high mud heap."
Canadian officers, who played a key role in the battle,
called the operation a major success but confirmed there had
been "few" direct encounters with the enemy.
"Gauging the success of any mission is more than just the
number of enemy killed," said Canadian Commodore Jean-Pierre
Thiffault, who is based at U.S. Central Command in Florida.
But there was no denying some al Qaeda forces did escape
the main fighting and were now on the run.
Hagenbeck said U.S. troops killed 16 people in an attack on
Sunday on a four-vehicle convoy carrying al Qaeda guerrillas
from the battlefield.
Elite special forces swooped down in helicopters on the
convoy, which had been tracked for several hours from the air,
about 45 miles (70 km) southwest of Gardez.
Hagenbeck said numerous weapons, including rocket-propelled
grenades, were found in the vehicles.
Britain announced Monday it was sending up to 1,700 troops
to Afghanistan -- its largest deployment for combat operations
since the 1991 Gulf War -- to help U.S. forces take on
remaining al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the British troops would
start arriving at Bagram in the next few days.
"The United States has formally requested that the UK
provide forces to join in future military operations," Hoon
Britain already has hundreds of troops in Afghanistan as
leader of the International Security Assistance Force -- a
peacekeeping deployment in the Afghan capital Kabul and its
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