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Afghan, US-led force in big anti-rebel push
( 2003-10-23 16:07) (Agencies)

More than 1,000 Afghan and U.S.-led foreign troops backed by tanks and aircraft are pursuing Taliban and al Qaeda militants in a big operation in the south of Afghanistan, a local commander said on Thursday.

Haji Sayed Mohammad, a military commander in Zabul province, said the operation was being carried out in several districts, including Arghandab, Naubahar and Shinki.

"Around 100 troops of allied forces and over 1,000 Afghan soldiers are participating and they have been supplemented by jets and tanks," he told Reuters by telephone.

He said some Taliban guerrillas had been captured while witnesses said U.S. warplanes had bombed suspected guerrilla hideouts.

Officials in Zabul and neighboring Uruzgan province told Reuters earlier in the week that 19 Taliban guerrillas, including a group mounted on motorcycles, have been detained.

The 11,500-strong U.S.-led force in Afghanistan has yet to comment on the operation in Zabul.

Earlier this month, the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review magazine quoted Western and Afghan intelligence sources as saying the Taliban was planning to bring 2,500 guerrillas from Pakistan ahead of the winter.

It said the rebels had bought more than 1,000 motorcycles over the past three months in Pakistan's Quetta region for this purpose.

The Taliban has already stepped up attacks in southern provinces in recent weeks and the period since early August has been the bloodiest since the group's overthrow in late 2001, with more than 300 people killed in clashes across the country.

U.S. and Afghan officials say Pakistan must do more to prevent guerrillas crossing its border to launch attacks.

Pakistan says it is doing its best to police a rugged and porous frontier and announced on Wednesday it had started fencing part of the border.

Also on Wednesday, the Western-backed government in Kabul said Taliban members, including former foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil who has been in U.S. custody since 2001, had shown willingness to help President Hamid Karzai.

The government said Karzai had yet to respond and Muttawakil had not been released as had been reported earlier this month.

A statement faxed to newspapers in Pakistan and signed by Hamid Agha, who identified himself as a Taliban spokesman, denied the guerrillas were in any talks with the government.

"No responsible Taliban has come to an understanding with Karzai," it said.

"Rather, Karzai and his allies want to hide their military and political failures from the public by baseless reports about dramatic talks with the Taliban," it said.

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