Winter snowstorms raged Thursday as American B-52 jets pounded the region in the heaviest bombing campaign since the military assault, dubbed “Operation Anaconda,” began March 1.
As many as 100 rebel fighters were killed in Thursday’s fighting, U.S. officials told reporters.
U.S. and allied Afghan soldiers have been battling Taliban and al-Qaida militants who have regrouped in caves and bunkers in the mountains.
The fighters are said to include Afghans, Chechens, Pakistanis and Uzbeks and, according to reports, are mounting guerilla-style resistance. They’re a group Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Wednesday called “dead-enders” — ready to fight to the death against U.S. forces.
Afghan leaders fear the besieged militants may try to slip away under cover of snow and that the storms could hamper crucial U.S. bombing support.
Rumsfeld said the mission may be nearing an end, but he said it’s hard to tell how many Taliban and al-Qaida militants are holed up in the bunkers and caves of the 10,000 foot peaks near the village of Shah-i-Kot.
“It strikes me that it should end — I would think it would end — sometime this weekend or next week. But one can’t be sure,” he told Pentagon employees Thursday.
U.S. commanders Wednesday said they have committed an additional 300 troops to the operation — already the largest in the five-month war in Afghanistan — bringing the total to 1,200, The New York Times reports.
Additional 16 AH-64 Apache and 5 AH-1 Super Cobra attack helicopters have also been ordered from bases in the U.S. And carriers in the Arabian Sea.
Afghan allies are also sending reinforcements. An estimated 1,000 soldiers from Kabul, under the command of veteran field commander Gul Haider, are expected to join the 800 Afghan fighters already in the region.
Eight Americans and at least seven allied Afghan troops have died since the mission began last week. Another 40 Americans and 30 Afghanis have been injured.
U.S. military spokesman Major Brian Hilferty told reporters some 1,000 Taliban and al-Qaida fighters were involved in the fighting, but said about half of them have been killed.