KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — U.S. Special Forces launched a raid early today to end a seven-week siege at this city's main hospital, where six wounded Al Qaeda Arab fighters armed with explosives, grenades and small arms have been holed up since early December.
Witnesses said a large group of U.S. soldiers entered the grounds of Kandahar's Mirwais hospital before dawn and were seen crouching in trenches near the facility's main building. The witnesses said they then heard two loud explosions followed by a prolonged exchange of small arms fire. A third explosion was heard about two hours later.
Helicopters assisted the operation, according to uniformed Afghans supporting the raid.
A U.S. Special Forces soldier guarding a hospital entrance road said the facility was closed because of "an ongoing military operation."
"There's an operation underway that's under the direction of the governor of Kandahar," he said.
"We're helping the local government facilitate with the non-Pushtun population," added a second American, who wore a black sweater and orange baseball cap. Two uniformed Afghans belonging to Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai's militia were with the Americans.
The hospital siege began early last month after nine severely wounded Al Qaeda fighters were brought to the hospital. When anti-Taliban forces tried to take the fighters prisoner, they found the Arabs had strapped explosives to their bodies and were threatening to blow up themselves and anyone who came near them.
The result has been a tense standoff. U.S. forces, with the apparent consent of the new local government, had reportedly ordered that the Arabs be starved out, but that tactic came under criticism from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the fighters are believed to have received some food from sympathetic hospital staff.
Two of the Arabs had apparently managed to escape earlier. One fighter killed himself after trying to escape.
Meanwhile, a group of Afghans from an area hit by U.S. Special Forces last week claimed Sunday that the people captured and killed in the raid were pro-government local residents, not hard-line Taliban holdouts as described by the U.S. military.
"They were not Taliban. None of them were Taliban," said Zainullah, a member of the local village's governing shura, or council. "That's impossible."
After meeting with the delegation Sunday, a senior member of Kandahar's provincial government, Mohammed Yusef Pushtoon, appeared to agree with the villagers, describing the raid as a mistake. He told reporters that the U.S. attack seemed to have concentrated on two buildings that were not Taliban or Al Qaeda hide-outs but instead a local government headquarters and a health clinic.
Maj. Bill Harrison, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., said Sunday that the Pentagon was standing by its original assessment that the compounds were legitimate military targets.
Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report.