KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – A bizarre two-month standoff in Afghanistan ended in death Monday morning, as Afghan troops and U.S. special forces stormed a Kandahar hospital wing where wounded Al Qaeda gunmen had held out since the Taliban withdrew in late November.
Afghan police, speaking anonymously, said all five or six gunmen had been killed.
The raid began about 3:40 a.m., as the Al Qaeda men, thought to be Arabs, rejected a surrender ultimatum. Afghan fighters and American special forces soldiers, some of them wearing "I Love New York" buttons and New York Yankees baseball caps, surrounded the barricaded wing of the Mir Wais hospital as helicopters circled overhead.
Journalists and the public were kept out of the area by roadblocks manned by both Americans and Afghans, but loud explosions and automatic-weapons fire could be heard for hours after the initial incursion.
Black smoke poured from the building, upon which U.S. snipers perched, and Afghan walkie-talkie traffic at one point said two fighters were still alive as the assault continued.
"Early in the morning, the American soldiers came," said Najabullah, an Afghan commander. "The Arabs saw them, and they started fighting."
Najabullah said the besieged men hurled grenades. A large explosion was heard more than five hours after the attack began. A fire broke out, and fire trucks were allowed inside, with the scene resembling a standoff.
Just after the noon call to prayers, American troops shouted "Stand clear!" and their Afghan allies threw grenades through the windows.
"These Arabs fought to the death," said one U.S. soldier, who identified himself only as Maj. Chris. He described the battle as "a very hard gunfight."
Afghan commanders said three of the Arabs were killed by grenades and three others in the assault, some of them hiding under beds. Afghan commander Lali Saliki, who was among those who stormed the ward, said he saw one surviving fighter groping for a gun and shot him. "He was starting to shoot us," Saliki said.
In the aftermath of the battle, the bloodied ward was littered with limbs blown off by the grenades, with bodies under a bed and laying about the floor. Pale, thin fighters lay dead, in sweaters and uniforms, half covered under blankets thrown over them. Mattresses appeared soaked in blood.
Chris called the operation "100 percent Afghan" and said the Americans acted only as advisers. But figures in the jackets and khakis worn by special forces were visible in the thick of the action. An Associated Press reporter saw at least one throwing explosives.
There appeared to be no casualties among the Americans or the Afghans fighting alongside them.
Originally, about 10 or so wounded and ill fighters sought refuge in the hospital as U.S.-led coalition forces ousted the Taliban last year.
The gunmen barricaded themselves in five or six rooms, demanded that doctors treat and feed them, and threatened to blow themselves and the hospital up if attempts were made to capture them. They also refused to allow non-Muslims near them.
Hospital officials ordered food and water cut off two weeks ago to starve them out, but the men were believed to have stockpiled supplies.
On Jan. 8, one fighter escaped from a second-story window and blew himself up with a grenade as Afghan guards surrounded him. Two other men also were said to have escaped, but that was never confirmed.
In December, two gunmen were captured when soldiers used the only doctor the men trusted to trick them. The gunmen, both Chinese, were handed over to U.S. forces.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai appealed to Afghan-Americans to return home and apply their skills to rebuilding the war-ravaged country.
At Georgetown University, Karzai told thousands of young Afghan-Americans jammed into a basketball arena Sunday that Afghanistan needed their help.
"You are the future of our country," Karzai said. "Study hard, work hard, make money and bring it to Afghanistan."
He indicated that Afghanistan must make good use of $4.5 billion in aid pledged by donor nations — including the United States, European Union and Iran — last week in Tokyo.
"Our responsibility is starting," he said.
Karzai, the first Afghan leader to visit Washington in 39 years, was scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House to seek continued U.S. help in restoring peace to Afghanistan.
Back in Afghanistan, a delegation of distraught villagers trekked to Kandahar to complain to Afghan authorities Sunday that U.S. Army Special Forces killed innocent people in a nighttime raid four days earlier.
The Pentagon said U.S. troops attacked a Taliban arms depot north of Kandahar, killing about 15 people, capturing 27 others and destroying a large cache of weapons.
But the leaders from the remote town of Khas Uruzgan claimed U.S. forces made a mistake, bombing their town hall and clinic, and killing and arresting men loyal to Karzai.
Karzai was expected to discuss military operations in his meetings with Bush and congressional leaders, but it was not known whether he would raise the village attack.
Before leaving for the United States, Karzai said he would use the trip to push for expanding a multinational security force to the rest of Afghanistan.
Afghan officials believe troops are needed in the countryside to deal with regional warlords and armed gangs. They have indicated they want American troops to participate.
The Bush administration has resisted U.S. involvement in the 2,500-strong, British-led security force protecting Karzai's administration in Kabul, the Afghan capital. But Washington has said U.S. troops probably will remain in the country for several more months hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban stragglers and helping stabilize the countryside.
The leaflets include pictures of the participating nations' flags so Kabul residents can tell where troops are from.
In other developments:
• Marjan the lion, blinded by a grenade in the mid-1990s and a symbol of Afghanistan's suffering during 23 years of war, was to be buried Monday at Kabul's zoo. He was found dead of apparent old age Saturday.
• Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ruled out granting prisoner-of-war status to suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists held in a makeshift prison at a U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
• Karzai's government adopted Afghanistan's royalist-era green-black-and-red flag as the country's new flag. The flag was used until King Mohammed Zaher Shah was deposed in 1973.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.