WASHINGTON — U.S. forces, moving to defang the still potent threat from surviving Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, killed 16 people in an attack on a convoy in southeastern Afghanistan and detained 31 while searching a compound near the southern city of Kandahar, senior military officials said Monday.
There was no indication that any of those killed or captured in the strikes, both of which occurred Sunday, were senior leaders of either the Al Qaeda terrorist network or the Taliban, the ousted hard-line regime of Afghanistan. No Americans were wounded in either confrontation, Pentagon officials said.
The strikes came as U.S. military commanders announced the end of Operation Anaconda, which began March 2 and has been described as the biggest battle of the 5 1/2-month-old Afghan war.
Small teams of U.S. Special Forces soldiers and Afghan allies--about 500 in all--remain in the battle zone in the wintry mountains of eastern Afghanistan, searching caves for information on terrorist activities, Pentagon officials said.
"While this particular operation's over, we're still actively pursuing Al Qaeda and Taliban personnel throughout Afghanistan, and we're preparing for any subsequent missions that may be needed," said Air Force Brig. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President Bush, on a political trip to the Midwest, praised the success of Operation Anaconda but told reporters in O'Fallon, Mo., near St. Louis: "I feel like we've got a lot more fighting to do in Afghanistan."
U.S. forces have so far searched about 30 caves in the 60-to-70-square-mile area near the city of Gardez where Operation Anaconda was fought, Rosa said.
He said that on Sunday morning, Army commando teams in MH-47 Chinook helicopters swooped down on a convoy of three vehicles about 45 miles southwest of Gardez, killing 16 men believed to be Al Qaeda fighters and wounding one. Another person, who was not injured, was held for questioning, Rosa said.
U.S. forces initially fired warning shots from the helicopters, Rosa said. When their shots were answered with fire from the vehicles, the troops rushed out of the aircraft and engaged in a firefight on the ground.
Rosa said a search of the vehicles turned up ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. He and other officials said they were awaiting more details.
A fourth vehicle, traveling some distance behind the convoy, also was stopped by the Americans, Rosa said. The family in the vehicle was allowed to proceed, he said.
Rosa said he was not sure where the convoy had originated, but other officials said it appeared that the people in the vehicles were trying to escape the area attacked heavily during Operation Anaconda.
In a separate incident about the same time as the firefight, U.S. forces captured 31 suspected Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters in a compound west of Kandahar, officials said. Rosa said the troops seized weapons and a large amount of ammunition. He had no other details.
Elsewhere in the war on terrorism, American troops in the Philippines removed three Philippine soldiers from Basilan island after they were wounded in a firefight with the Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist group believed to be linked to Al Qaeda, Rosa said.
U.S. troops were sent to the nation last month to help train and assist Philippine forces battling the Abu Sayyaf. More than 600 U.S. troops are in the Philippines to help crush the group, which has held two American missionaries hostage since May.
Times staff writer Edwin Chen in O'Fallon contributed to this report.