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Taliban, al-Qaida sympathizers many

| Saturday, March 9, 2002

MERA JAN, Afghanistan (AP) — From checkpoints that cling to the sides of mountains, U.S. special forces and their Afghan allies are trying to choke off supplies and reinforcements to al-Qaida fighters under siege in eastern Afghanistan.

As several American soldiers used binoculars to scan the rugged peaks in the distance Friday, they could see three mountain ranges, all potential hide-outs for al-Qaida and Taliban. Beyond those mountains are others linked by narrow gorges and steep valleys — all providing potential escape routes for al-Qaida fighters.

The checkpoints are near the town of Khost, a hotbed of Taliban sympathy near the Pakistani border. While the Americans refused to be interviewed, one soldier who wouldn't give his name offered this warning: "If you are going to Khost, you should be careful. Without saying more, that's why we're here."

The mission of the troops here is to cut off supplies and reinforcements to the hundreds of al-Qaida fighters hiding in mountain caves. They will also try to stop any al-Qaida and Taliban remnants from escaping to Pakistan and flush out sympathizers from among residents.

At one joint U.S.-Afghan checkpoint, about 20 miles north of Khost, U.S. special forces have set up a base on a ridge in a stone and mud building partially destroyed in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. The roof is a deep green tarp — their only protection against the cold rain.

As the battle rages, Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers are pressing a campaign in eastern and southern Afghanistan urging the faithful to wage jihad, or holy war, against the United States.

Earlier this week, a bomb blew apart a Khost shop selling video and music cassettes, both forbidden as evil under the Taliban.

"We blame al-Qaida and Taliban sympathizers for the attack on the airport and the bomb at the video cassette store," the newly appointed governor of Khost, Mohammed Ibrahim, said yesterday.

On the northern edge of Khost, a shrine to al-Qaida and Taliban warriors killed in the war against terrorism attracts a steady stream of worshippers.

The 40 men buried there were killed when a bomb flattened a mosque in Khost in December. Two of the dead were from Pakistan.

At the shrine, hundreds of brightly colored scarves fluttered in the afternoon breeze, put there by the faithful seeking favors. Abdul Rahman brought his 3-year-old niece, Miska, to be healed. Wrapped in a dirty brown blanket, Miska could barely hold her head up.

Nearby a family brought a mentally handicapped relative. Another man could not see.

"They are all martyrs. We want only Muslims here. We don't want non-Muslims," said Abdullah Abid, who had come to pray. Nearby another man chimed in: "We want a pure Islamic government."

Abdul Shakur, scratched his white beard and explained in a high-pitched voice: "Afghanistan is the home of Islam. This is what we want."

A deeply conservative and tribal region, eastern Afghanistan was a stronghold of the Taliban and the site of several military training camps for Kashmiri militants, al-Qaida and Taliban.

After the 1998 bombings against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States targeted an al-Qaida camp with Tomahawk missiles to try to kill suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. About 20 people were killed, most of them Pakistani militants.

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