Pentagon to boost firepower at siege

Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau

The Pentagon said Wednesday that it would dispatch more American troops and increase firepower in the mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan where U.S. forces remained entrenched for the fifth day of an intense ground war with resilient Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said he would boost military strength by up to 300 troops in the snowy, rugged area near Gardez. The deployment would raise the number of U.S. ground fighters to about 1,200 as Operation Anaconda rages on with no end in close sight.

American and Afghan commanders reported that the enemy force is growing, with as many as 500 new fighters joining the battle after reaching the area over mountain trails.

Maj. Gen. Frank Hagenbeck of the 101st Airborne Division confirmed that hundreds of additional Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters had reached the Shah-e-Kot area.

"We have intelligence from a variety of sources that the local fundamentalists have called a jihad against the Americans and their coalition partners," Hagenbeck said.

The fighting continued around the clock in a remote region that is out of reach for most independent observers, with opposition forces mounting a fierce resistance in punishing, frigid weather and dizzying altitudes of 10,000 feet or higher. The United States and its allies brought more attack helicopters to the area as Taliban forces fought back with mortars, cannons and automatic rifles.

"The area inside Afghanistan continues to be very messy," Franks told reporters at the Pentagon after briefing President Bush on the progress of the operation. "It continues to be very dangerous."

That danger was underscored Wednesday as the Pentagon sought to further explain the deaths of eight U.S. servicemen near Gardez. Videotapes of a firefight that led to seven deaths had yet to be reviewed, top military officials said, but witness accounts portrayed a bloody, hard-fought battle that brought to mind the U.S. helicopter crashes in Somalia nearly a decade ago.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld bristled when asked whether a comparison could be drawn between the helicopter incidents this week and the "Black Hawk Down" episode in 1993, when the bodies of U.S. troops were paraded through the streets of Mogadishu. In fact, Rumsfeld said he could not confirm the military's own preliminary version of how a 32-year-old Navy SEAL died after tumbling from a MH-47 Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan.

"Other than very brave people being involved, this has nothing to do with Mogadishu," Rumsfeld said. "The individual who was killed, his body has been retrieved, and so, too, have the wounded. And I don't see any comparison."

As the dead servicemen were mourned Wednesday in military bases and hometowns across America, the death of the Navy SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, triggered intense emotions during the daily Pentagon briefing.

Hagenbeck, the commander of Operation Anaconda, which was named for a snake that crushes its prey, initially told reporters at the Bagram air base north of Kabul that Roberts fell from the helicopter. He said Roberts was dragged away and executed by Al Qaeda fighters before his body was recovered in a rescue mission, a scene that Hagenbeck said was partly captured on video taken by an unmanned Predator aircraft.

But later in Washington, Rumsfeld and Franks said the circumstances of Roberts' death remained unclear and stressed that preliminary battlefield reports often prove incorrect.

Not `Monday Night Football'

"One should appreciate that to review the tape is not like reviewing `Monday Night Football' tape," Franks said.

"There will be a lot of views on this particular incident, and that is not speculation," he added. "I have talked to three, maybe four people who were either present or have reviewed the result of this, and it would probably not surprise you that each has a different view of what happened."

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the number of enemy troops in the region continued to grow, the Pentagon said. When the U.S.-led attack started late last week, fewer than 200 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters were believed to be putting up resistance to the strikes.

Now, military officials say the number of enemy troops has increased to as many as 700. Uzbek and Chechen fighters, who have links to Al Qaeda, have joined the opposing forces. The numbers of troops and their affiliations were difficult to verify, as the Pentagon tightly held its information and strictly controlled access to the dangerous region.

"The forces we face represent very hardened elements of Al Qaeda and Taliban, true dead-enders," Rumsfeld said. "I believe that the outcome is reasonably assured, that people who have been in the battle will either surrender or be killed in the days ahead."

He added: "The battle very likely will take some time to play out."

In Kabul, members of an international peacekeeping force also reported casualties. Two German and three Danish soldiers were killed while trying to defuse anti-aircraft missiles, the German Defense Ministry said in Berlin.

German army chief Harald Kujat said three other soldiers had been seriously injured.

The explosion occurred at a demolition site 5 miles from the center of Kabul, said the press officer for the international security force, Capt. Graham Dunlop of Britain.

`We will continue'

At a late-evening news conference, Brig. Gen. Carl Hubertus von Butler, the commander of the German security contingent in Afghanistan, called the incident "tragic."

"This event has affected the contingent, and it's not easy to continue, but we will continue our mission as well as we can," he said.

The soldiers were attempting to destroy two Russian-made SA-3 ground-to-air missiles with a controlled explosion at a munitions collection point not far from the German military's base in Kabul, Kujat said.

The SA-3 was part of the arsenal of Afghanistan's former Taliban rulers, officials said.

"Apparently, the explosion went off early," Kujat said. "The soldiers were still in the area close to the two missiles."

Other details about the explosion remained unclear, such as how many soldiers were in the vicinity of the blast and how the explosion was triggered.

The accident is the worst suffered by the 18-nation International Security Assistance Force since it began its United Nations mission to patrol Kabul in December. It is likely to provoke controversy in Germany, where sending troops to Afghanistan has been questioned.

Meanwhile, according to information released from the small group of reporters traveling with the forces, the first five days of Operation Anaconda has left a bloody toll on Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. At least half the 600 enemy fighters in the Arma mountains have been killed, Hagenbeck said.

"The results so far speak for themselves: Several hundreds of Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists are no longer with us to terrorize our citizens or those citizens throughout the world," Hagenbeck told reporters at the Bagram base. "We truly have momentum at this moment."

Tribune news services contributed to this report.

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