Waves of Canadian Troops Join in Fresh Operation in Eastern Afghanistan

Waves of Chinook helicopters carrying several hundred Canadian troops took off from this air base Saturday for a fresh operation in eastern Afghanistan, another sign that coalition forces were stepping up their campaign against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.

In the south, American Special Forces and Afghan troops disarmed an entire village suspected of harboring sympathizers to the al-Qaida terrorist network, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Bryan Hilferty said. No arrests were made.

And in the southeast, a 1,000-strong British-led force continued a massive sweep through the hillsides, seizing 2,000 rounds of automatic weapons ammunition in a cave, according to Royal Marines spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Harradine.

Each of the missions falls under the umbrella of Operation Mountain Lion — the overall U.S.-led search for Taliban and al-Qaida remnants in the eastern half of Afghanistan.

Both Operation Torii and Operation Snipe, under Canadian and British command respectively, are backed by U.S. air support and Afghan ground forces. A small number of U.S. troops from the 101st Airborne Division also were participating.

"Things are going well and there have been no battlefield casualties reported," said Col. John Collin, the senior Canadian officer in Afghanistan. One Canadian soldier, however, injured his leg and was evacuated by helicopter.

U.S. Lt. Col. Christopher Pease said the Canadian operation was "in probably the roughest terrain we have experienced to date since we've been in Afghanistan."

He described it as taking place in a mountainous area where altitudes range from 7,000 feet to 11,000 feet. Allied military officials refused to describe the location in further detail.

Pease said Operation Torii's objective was to gain intelligence on al-Qaida and could take two days to several weeks to complete. "They'll stay out there until they're done," he said.

The operation was the first major deployment of Canadian troops since April 17, when an American F-16 pilot on a night patrol dropped a 500-pound bomb on Canadian troops conducting a live-fire training exercise near the southern city of Kandahar. Four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight others injured.

Pease said Afghan and U.S. special forces had surveilled the area over the last few days and secured a landing zone for the Canadians. They would sweep the area together, he said.

The operations are part of stepped-up efforts to hunt down what's left of al-Qaida and the Taliban, both of whom U.S. officials say have dispersed into small groups since the last major combat operation against them in March.

Hilferty, the U.S. military spokesman, said coalition forces had disarmed an entire village in the south Friday after intelligence suggested the residents include al-Qaida sympathizers. A cache of weapons was seized, including an anti-aircraft gun.

"They weren't terribly happy but there was no resistance," Hilferty told reporters at Bagram air base. He refused to identify the town.

In the southeast, the British-led Operation Snipe continued Saturday, with troops going through as-yet unchecked territory in search of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters and hide-outs they may have used.

Harradine, the Royal Marines spokesman, said 20 percent of the targeted territory had been searched since coalition troops began advancing Thursday. No contact with enemy fighters or injuries have been reported.

Local residents appeared friendly and were telling coalition forces that no al-Qaida or Taliban were in the area, he said.

"Of course we have to use this information wisely. They could be under duress to say that, they could be saying that for a decoy or indeed they could be friendly and there are none there," Harradine said.

He said the troops were moving with Afghan interpreters and were carrying leaflets explaining the aim of the operation and how locals could help.

Civil affairs teams were standing by at a nearby forward operating base to move in with wheat and blankets "when the commander thinks it's safe enough."

Meanwhile, Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai returned to his hometown of Kandahar on Saturday to encourage his fellow ethnic Pashtuns that international aid will bring them better times ahead.

Thousands of people turned out to see Karzai as he travelled in a convoy through Afghanistan's second largest city that was led by U.S. Special Forces.