Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says nine U.S. troops have been killed and 40 others wounded in eastern Afghanistan, in what he described as fierce fighting between U.S.-led forces and al-Qaida terrorists. The Pentagon said seven of the U.S. troops died when a U.S. helicopter came under enemy fire late Sunday in Paktia province and crash-landed. It is unclear whether the troops died in the crash or in a firefight afterwards.
In another incident in the same region, a U.S. soldier was killed when a helicopter made a hard landing before taking off again. A ninth soldier died Saturday. An unknown number of U.S. forces were wounded in the two incidents.
Mr. Rumsfeld said the combat zone appears to contain several pockets of al-Qaida terrorists who are well dug in and putting up fierce resistance. Speaking at the Pentagon alongside Mr. Rumsfeld, Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said al-Qaida forces have apparently chosen to stay in Paktia province and fight to the last man. He said the Pentagon hopes to facilitate that choice.
The U.S. helicopters were supporting U.S. and Afghan troops in a series of pitched battles that began late Friday.
U.S. officials say a large number of al-Qaida and Taleban holdouts have regrouped in a maze of mountain caves and tunnels outside Gardez in Paktia province. Local Afghan officials say the number may be in the thousands.
The offensive is the largest military action in Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, involving nearly 1,500 Afghan, U.S., and coalition troops on the ground. Several coalition countries are taking part in the operation, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, and Norway.