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U.S. force kills 14 Afghans


KANDAHAR AIR BASE, Afghanistan - U.S. Special Forces attacked a Taliban headquarters north of Kandahar early yesterday, killing at least 14 Afghan fighters and capturing more than two dozen, in the largest clash involving American ground troops in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.

One American soldier was shot in the ankle in the pre-dawn firefight with Taliban forces about 60 miles from Kandahar, the former political and spiritual capital of the militant Islamic militia.

The simultaneous strikes against two Taliban leadership compounds less than 10 miles apart shortly after midnight suggested that U.S. forces hoped to use the element of surprise to seize top militia leaders as well as their computer hard drives and phone books, which have proved valuable in tracking down other terrorist cells.

Marine CH-53 helicopters and AC-130 gunships took part in the raid, U.S. officials said. Twenty-seven captured Taliban fighters, several seriously wounded, were taken to Kandahar.

Army officials at Kandahar airport, which is the base for the biggest concentration of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, did not disclose how many Americans took part in the fighting or how long it lasted.

An official at the Pentagon said special operations forces attacked a camp north of Kandahar that was suspected of being an al-Qaida outpost but instead found members of the Taliban.

"It turned out there were more Afghans than foreigners," the official said. "It may be that the al-Qaida slipped away."

Pentagon officials said they were unsure whether any al-Qaida or Taliban leaders were among those killed or wounded.

The Army identified the wounded Green Beret as Staff Sgt. James Wilson Jr. of Florida, a member of the 5th Special Forces Group. He was evacuated to the base at Kandahar, then flown to a U.S. military facility outside Afghanistan.

Wilson was in stable condition, and his wound was not considered life-threatening, Army officials said.

Wilson was the first American battlefield casualty in Afghanistan since Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman was killed Jan. 4 in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan.

Three members of U.S. Special Forces were killed last month by American fire near Kandahar; eleven U.S. troops have been killed in air crashes during the Afghan campaign.

Officials here and in Washington said remnants of al-Qaida were continuing to move south from the Khost area, near the Pakistani border, where U.S. airstrikes targeted their cave complex.

Dozens of special operations soldiers are based here, and have been seen leaving and arriving by helicopter at all hours, laden with weaponry and heavy backpacks.

At a Pentagon briefing, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said al-Qaida and Taliban members were fighting on in a number of places in Afghanistan.

"We are going to pursue them ... and we are going to keep at them until we get them," he said. "We're doing it systematically, and I think you can expect that it will continue for some period of time."

Special Forces have been stepping up the search for Taliban and al-Qaida renegades, military officials said. On Tuesday, U.S. troops conducted a house-to-house search in four villages of Helmand province, west of Kandahar, looking for the deposed Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. No trace of him was found.

In addition to organizing operations against Taliban and al-Qaida forces, special operations soldiers are working with Afghan militia leaders. On a recent day in Kandahar, the only Westerner in sight was a Special Forces soldier, wearing an unmarked desert camouflage uniform, dark sunglasses and driving a red Toyota pickup with an "I Love New York" bumper sticker.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, who serves on a military and tribal affairs committee in Kandahar and is the brother of Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, said the Americans keep their work secret.

"We see them sometimes in the meetings," said Karzai. "We don't know what they're doing. They're doing their own thing, whatever they have to."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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