U.S. launches new Afghan push against Bin Laden
U.S.-led forces have launched a new operation across a broad area of the south and east of Afghanistan aimed at capturing top al Qaeda and Taliban militants such as Osama bin Laden, the U.S. military said on Saturday.
The operation, codenamed "Mountain Storm," was launched on March 7 and involved troops from the 13,500-strong U.S.-led force backed by air support, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Bryan Hilferty told a news briefing.
"We believe that this will help bring the heads of the terrorist organizations to justice by continuing to place pressure on them," he said.
Asked whether the operation could lead to the arrest of bin Laden, head of the al Qaeda network blamed for the September 2001 attacks on the United States, Hilferty replied:
"This operation is aimed like the rest at rebuilding and reconstructing and providing enduring security in Afghanistan, so it's certainly about more than one person.
"We do have confidence though, and the leaders of al Qaeda and the leaders of the Taliban need to be brought to justice and they will be."
Hilferty said "Mountain Storm" was a continuation of previous operations which had involved patrols, searches and small-scale air assaults, but declined to provide details.
"We have air support, close-fire support from the air 24-hours a day, circling overhead ready to assist coalition forces. It is a continuing effort to keep pressure on the terrorist organizations and their infrastructure."
The fresh campaign comes after a series of militant attacks recently on aid workers and foreigners, as well as against Afghan and U.S.-led forces.
U.S. defense officials in Washington on Friday described "Mountain Storm" as a broad spring offensive to hunt down al Qaeda fugitives, including bin Laden.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters it was timed to exploit improving weather conditions in the remote, mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where bin Laden is thought to be hiding.
SECRET TASK FORCE
They said the secretive Task Force 121, a covert commando team of Special Operations troops and CIA personnel involved in the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in December, has relocated people and equipment to the border region to search for bin Laden and other al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas.
U.S. officials have said they suspect bin Laden is hiding somewhere in the border region, possibly crossing back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mullah Mohammed Omar, who headed the Afghan Taliban government that harbored the al Qaeda network, has also eluded U.S. searchers.
U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001, in an invasion launched in the wake of the September 11 attacks on U.S. cities, for which al Qaeda is blamed.
One defense official said Operation Mountain Storm was designed to last longer than many military operations, which unfold in three or four weeks.
Lieutenant-General David Barno, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, said last month the United States and Pakistan were moving toward coordinated operations along the border -- "a hammer and anvil approach" -- to prevent fleeing guerrillas from escaping by crossing from one country to the other.
Barno noted that Pakistan had stepped up military operations in the semi-autonomous tribal zones along the border where al Qaeda fugitives may be seeking refuge.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has declined to add his voice to predictions by some U.S. military officers in Afghanistan that bin Laden will be caught this year.
"I'm not going to get into that -- increased optimism, slightly decreased pessimism," Rumsfeld told Reuters in a recent interview. "He's probably alive. And he's probably in Afghanistan or Pakistan. And we're probably going to catch him or kill him."
Militants have kept up a stream of deadly attacks on Afghan aid workers and foreigners in recent weeks that could signal the beginning of a new spring offensive, the U.S. Military said last week.
They have also attacked Afghan and U.S. posts along the border and in the south and east of Afghanistan with rockets, small arms and bombs.