U.S. troops rout out militants before elections

Associated Press
Published August 14, 2005

KANDAGAL, Afghanistan - U.S. Marines and Afghan troops launched an offensive Saturday to take a remote mountain valley from insurgents tied to the deadliest blow on American forces since the Taliban regime was ousted nearly four years ago.

The operation is the biggest yet aimed at rebels thought responsible for attacks that killed 19 U.S. troops in June. Three Navy SEALs were killed in an ambush, and all 16 soldiers on a helicopter sent to rescue them died when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The offensive, expected to last two weeks, came at the end of a deadly week for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Seven Americans have died along with dozens of militants and civilians, reinforcing concerns that crucial legislative elections next month could be threatened.

U.S. and Afghan commanders said militants in the Korengal Valley, in eastern Kunar province near the Pakistani border, were intent on disrupting voting. They said the valley held hundreds of Afghan rebels and foreign extremists.

Meanwhile, a local shepherd who rescued the only member of the ambushed SEAL team to survive was reported in hiding after militants threatened to kill him.

Lt. Col. Jim Donnellan, commander of the Marine battalion, confirmed the fourth SEAL was sheltered by a villager, but he declined to elaborate.

A neighbor said the shepherd, who is Pashtun, the same ethnicity as most Taliban fighters, gave sanctuary to the American because "it is our culture."