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An escalating, high-altitude showdown

The US and allies have killed hundreds, but enemy ranks have been renewed.

(Page 2 of 2)

Some 4,000 Afghan soldiers from Paktia, Logar, and Paktika Provinces have gathered at Shahi Kot to help US forces. They are flanking the US troops leading into forward positions and blocking possible escape routes.

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Cmdr. Mohammad Naeem, the security chief of Zarmat District, along with 20 to 25 fighters, is blocking the route leading west from Arma.

Although he complains that he doesn't have enough ammunition, supplies, or other gear, he says: "I and my soldiers are here to block the fleeing route of Al Qaeda members who might flee from the Arma cave compound to Ghazni or to western areas," he says.

Cmdr. Raz Mohammad Totakhail, a Ghilzi warlord, along with 80 heavily armed fighters, is blocking the eastern route.

In an interview only 500 meters away from the Arma Al Qaeda base, he says: "It is very difficult to control the routes going out and coming into Arma base. The terrain is very difficult, it's very cold at this high altitude, and we don't have enough men, warm clothes, and enough communication equipment.

"On Sunday there were only a few caves and bunkers from which the Al Qaeda fighters fired grenades," Commander Totakhail went on to say. "But in the past two days, their positions have been increased to hundreds. They get fresh support from the tribal Taliban supporters on the other side of the border.

"The Al Qaeda fighters are well equipped," Totakhail says. "They are firing rockets, mortars, bombs, and heavy machineguns - fighting a guerrilla war."

"The Chechens are making hit-and-run attacks on the combined US-Afghan force of 2,000 besieging their caves and bunkers" says Commander Raz, who also fought against Soviet occupation in these very mountains during the 1980s. "They have divided into groups of four or five. They jump out of a cave, open fire on us, and then dart back into the cave or move to another one. They are familiar withthe terrain."

Residents at Rohani Baba, the closest village to the Arma Al Qaeda base, say there are dozens of families with the foreign fighters, especially the Chechens.

US and allied forces, who were brought by Chinook helicopters from Bagram airport north of Kabul, were heading toward the front line in Shahi Kot. Some troops carried shoulder-launched rockets, which they use to blast the snow-covered cave entrances. They were also equipped with night-vision equipment and dressed in heavy winter uniforms to protect them from the sub-zero temperatures.

US forces came very close to the Al Qaeda base on early Wednesday. But because the Al Qaeda fighters put up fierce resistance, the special forces weren't able to break into the northern belt of the Arma Al Qaeda base until later in the day - after a heavy US air bombardment of the caves. The exact number of casualties to Al Qaeda fighters due to the bombing is not available. But the resumption of heavy airstrikes indicates that Al Qaeda fighters continue to attack.

US warplanes also continue their round-the-clock bombardment of Al Qaeda forces holed up in cave complexes. And the US helicopters hover over the eastern edge of the mountains bordering Pakistan during and after the bombing.