IMAGE: U.S. soldiers in patrol
Ed Wray  /  AP file
U.S. soldiers patrol past local Afghan militia in Khost, Afghanistan, on March 2. Khost is about 120 miles southeast of Kabul, the capital.
updated 3/6/2004 10:27:29 AM ET 2004-03-06T15:27:29

U.S. special operations forces killed nine suspected Taliban rebels in a firefight in eastern Afghanistan after the militants tried to sneak by their position, a U.S. military spokesman said Saturday.

The clash occurred Friday east of Orgun, about 105 miles south of Kabul and not far from the border with Pakistan, Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, a military spokesman, said.

No casualties were reported among the 10 Americans involved or an Afghan army battalion that was with them. It was not clear whether Afghan army forces took part in the shooting.

Hilferty said the clash began when a “platoon sized” unit of suspected Taliban — about 30-40 armed men — tried to flank the position held by the Americans and their Afghan army allies.

“I don’t know who opened fire first,” Hilferty said at a news conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

After the clash, the remaining rebels ran off, he said.

On Feb. 27, U.S. troops shot dead a gunman in a clash near the American base at Orgun, in a turbulent swath of rugged country where the military has vowed a spring offensive against al-Qaida and Taliban suspects.

Orgun is in Afghanistan’s Paktika province, just across the border from Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region. Pakistani authorities recently launched a military operation in the semiautonomous tribal belt to capture al-Qaida suspects or force them to flee. No major arrests have been made.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are both believed to be hiding out in the long border region, though there has been no specific word on their whereabouts for some time.

On Thursday, American forces detained 14 suspected Taliban north of Khost, another Afghan town near the Pakistan border, Hilferty said.

Spring offensive expected
Hilferty on Saturday declined to say whether the promised stepped-up spring offensive has begun, saying only that Americans and their allies had been patrolling through the winter as well.

However, he denied that U.S. forces were searching for bin Laden around Tora Bora, the southeastern cave complex where the military believes bin Laden was hiding as the Taliban collapsed during U.S.-led airstrikes in late 2001.

Hilferty also said that revised American tactics — including basing smaller groups of U.S. forces in communities — were starting to pay off with better intelligence.

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