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British troops scouring the east

©Los Angeles Times
April 17, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Royal Marines have begun a search-and-destroy mission to clear Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from mountainous terrain in eastern Afghanistan, the first major combat operation of the conflict by British land forces.

Details on the operation, which began several days ago, were sketchy Tuesday. No information was released on the exact location, how many soldiers are participating or whether there was any fighting.

U.S. and Afghan soldiers already had been searching for Taliban and al-Qaida forces in the area.

It was unclear the extent to which the British troops of the 45 Commando Royal Marines were engaging Taliban and al-Qaida holdouts in combat in eastern Afghanistan or whether they were mainly sweeping the area to eliminate possible hideouts.

Spokesmen refused to say whether any senior al-Qaida leaders are targeted in this assault. But in London, where the offensive was announced, British Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram said Osama bin Laden "remains one of the prime objectives" in the hunt for al-Qaida forces.

The deployment is the first major coalition operation in Afghanistan since U.S. forces drove enemy fighters out of the mountains around Shah-e-Kot, about 120 miles south of Kabul, last month. Dubbed Operation Ptarmigan, for a mountain bird that changes colors with the seasons, it also represents the first assignment for a detachment of elite British troops that began arriving recently.

Eastern Afghanistan is unstable. The Taliban still has significant support in the area, and the porous border enables terrorists to seek refuge in neighboring Pakistan.

The effort to clear the remaining Taliban and al-Qaida fighters from the east came as Afghanistan prepared for the return of the nation's deposed king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, possibly as early as Thursday. The former monarch had been expected to come home from exile in Italy last month, but the trip was delayed because of security concerns.

Interim Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai flew to Rome on Monday to escort the 87-year-old former king home.

Zaher Shah is returning not as ruler but as a private citizen. Aside from standing as a symbol of national unity, he is to convene in June a grand council, or loya jirga, to select a government.

In Washington, the Pentagon on Tuesday identified four U.S. Army soldiers killed Monday in an explosion near the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar.

The soldiers, who died when a rocket they were trying to disarm exploded, were identified as Staff Sgt. Brian Craig, 27, of Texas; Staff Sgt. Justin Galewski, 28, and Sgt. Jamie Maugans, 27, both of Kansas; and Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Romero, 30, of Colorado. Their hometowns were not given.

The cause of the accident is under investigation, the Pentagon said. The 107mm rocket was part of a cache of weapons captured in recent days by U.S. forces near Kandahar.

The explosion brought to 37 the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan since the military campaign began Oct. 7.

-- Information from the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post was used in this report.

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