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Heavy Fighting Erupts in Afghanistan

According to U.S. military spokesman Col. Roger King, helicopter gunships employed rocket and cannon fire, and European allies also dropped 500-pound bombs.

At least 18 rebels have died in the battle, which erupted Monday when U.S. and Afghan forces came under fire while searching a compound in the mountains. In the initial firefight, one rebel was killed, a second wounded and a third detained. No coalition casualties have been reported.

When Apache helicopters went to investigate, they encountered small arms fire. U.S. B-1 bombers then responded by dropping 19 2,000-pound bombs on rebel hideouts, including deep caves. According to U.S. military spokesman Col. Roger King, helicopter gunships employed rocket and cannon fire, and European allies also dropped 500-pound bombs.

Roughly 200 special forces troops are involved in the fighting, which continues near the town of Spin Boldak near the Pakistani border. According to U.S. Army spokesman Major Robert Hepner, additional troops are en route to the region.

King said U.S. forces are still determining how many rebels are in the mountainous area, while early reports suggest there are about 80 men. King described the rebels as the largest concentration of enemy forces since Operation Anaconda, the March 2002 U.S.-led raid to dislodge Taliban and al-Qaida strongholds from caves in southeastern Afghanistan.

The rebels are believed to be under the command of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Islamic fundamentalist renegade leader who has pledged to overthrow Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government.

Hekmatyar was a main commander of Afghanistan’s mujahadeen militia that fought Soviet control in the 1980s, with support from the United States and Pakistan. In the civil conflict during the 1990s, he was among the warlords fighting for control of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“Our intelligence leads us to believe that [the rebels] are most closely aligned with the Hezb-e-Islami movement, which is Hekmatyar’s military arm. We’ve had reports over several months that he has been attempting to consolidate with remnants of al-Qaida and the Taliban,” King told reporters Tuesday.

Afghan officials say members of the fallen Taliban have resumed training and are attempting to regroup in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Small-scale attacks, including one in December that killed a U.S. army sergeant, have also become more common over recent months.

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