GARDEZ, Afghanistan – The American commander of Operation Anaconda said hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were killed in fierce fighting that carried into Wednesday as U.S.-led coalition forces pressed their offensive in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan — entering at least one cave complex.
"We caught several hundred of them with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and mortars heading toward the fight. We body slammed them today and killed hundreds of those guys," said Maj. Gen. Frank L. Hagenbeck, the commander of the operation near Gardez, 75 miles south of Kabul, the capital.
U.S. forces in the region said as many as 800 opposition fighters had been seen moving toward the battle since the American-led operation was launched on Saturday.
U.S.-led forces continued inching up the snow-covered mountains, meanwhile, trying to reach hideouts still believed to contain hundreds more Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Some forces entered at least one cave complex, uncovering weapons caches.
Allied jets flew high over Paktia province, dropping bombs as well as decoy flares to ward off heat-seeking missiles — defensive measures after two U.S. helicopters were hit Monday in incidents that left seven U.S. soldiers dead.
Front-line commander Abdul Matin Hasankhiel said hundreds of Afghan and coalition forces have ringed the mountain range and trapped the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters higher up.
"They can't escape. They're surrounded. Slowly, slowly we are pushing in," he said.
Hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are believed to be holed up in the area, Brig. Gen. John Rosa told reporters at the Pentagon. Bombers and tactical aircraft have dropped more than 450 bombs on the area since the assault began Friday night, he said.
"We've been able to get into at least one of the cave complexes thus far and we've discovered mortars, rocket-propelled grenade rounds, small arms. And in a different location we found more weapons and ammunition, as well as foreign driver's licenses and foreign passports," he said. He did not say whether there was resistance entering the cave complex.
One fighter, Nawab, who returned from a front-line position Tuesday, said about 50 U.S. special forces were fighting alongside Afghan soldiers at his position about 2 miles from Shah-e-Kot, the village that is the focus of the largest U.S.-led coalition air and ground operation in Afghanistan to date.
Mine sweepers were leading the way, clearing the paths along the snowy mountains. Attack jets circled overhead and pounded Al Qaeda positions while Chinook helicopters ferried in supplies. A powerful fleet of aircraft — including A-10s, F-15s, B-1s, B-52s, AC-130 gunships, and French Mirage 2000 and Super-Etendard aircraft — was participating in the assault.
The blitz was concentrating on a 60-square-mile area south of the provincial capital, Gardez.
Nawab said fighting was less intense than in previous days. The militants were equipped with heavy artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, mortars, cannons and machine guns.
"Inshallah [God willing] in three or four days they will be finished," he said.
U.S. officials said Tuesday the United States had observed Al Qaeda forces reoccupying several former training camps in the region that were bombed earlier in the war.
"We don't know how long it's going to take, but we'll be there until the Al Qaeda and Taliban forces are totally uprooted," said Gunnery Sgt. Charles Portman, a spokesman at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.
The eight American servicemen killed in Afghanistan were honored in Germany before their flag-draped caskets were flown back to the United States. A C-17 transport jet brought the men's remains to Ramstein Air Base and was met on the tarmac by a U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force honor guard for the somber ceremony under cloudy skies in the wooded hills of western Germany.
"We should make sure these very brave people who lost their lives did not do so in vain," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday, calling for the world to redouble its efforts to stamp out terrorism.
Neither the former Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar nor Al Qaeda chief Usama bin Laden was believed to be in the Shah-e-Kot area, but Afghans say hundreds of their supporters and their families are there.
U.S. officials said Tuesday the enemy troops included foreigners who fought with the Taliban, Al Qaeda members, and members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
As of Monday, about 100 or 200 enemy fighters had been killed and a small number detained, said Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the war in Afghanistan.
Afghan and American defense officials said the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were likely armed with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles such as Russian SA-7s and possibly American Stingers — as well as mortars, grenades and cannons.
On Tuesday, about 60 Afghan fighters outfitted in U.S.-issued parkas, their heads wrapped in turbans, headed to the front lines from Jaji, northeast of Gardez. Bright orange strips were affixed to the top of the transport trucks to identify them to the allied bombers and helicopters roaring overhead.
The American deaths Monday occurred during two operations involving MH-47 Chinook helicopters, Rosa said. In the first, a helicopter inserting special forces was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, forcing it down. As it tried to lift off, one American fell out, Rosa said. Another helicopter retrieved the rest of the crew.
Three hours later, a Chinook was trying to land forces in the same area when it was hit by machine-gun fire and a rocket-propelled grenade, Rosa said. The helicopter was forced down, and a gunbattle took place in which six U.S. soldiers were killed. When members of that helicopter were evacuated, the body of the soldier who fell from the first was found, Rosa said.
Sgt. Rodrick White, 23, an infantryman from Enterprise, Ala., who is stationed along with the 101st Airborne at the U.S. air base in Kandahar, said he was saddened by news of the American casualties, but said he and his men were ready if called upon to take part in the fighting in eastern Afghanistan.
"The guys that got hurt before me are in my heart and in my mind, but I know that I have five other guys that are right beside me and it's my responsibility to make sure that they get home," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.