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Thirteen American Soldiers Killed in Helicopter Assault

By Craig Gordon
NEWSDAY -- washington

The fiercest U.S. ground assault in Afghanistan turned into the deadliest for American forces there when seven U.S. soldiers were killed early Monday after one soldier fell out of a helicopter that came under attack and six others were killed in a firefight when they went to retrieve him, U.S. officials said.

The two helicopters came under attack during a U.S.-led mission to rout a stubborn pocket of al-Qaida and Taliban troops that are dug into position in the frigid mountains surrounding Gardez. The attack, code-named Anaconda and in the works for several weeks, put 800 to 900 U.S. troops into eastern Afghanistan, backed by 1,000 Afghan fighters and a huge bombing campaign.

One U.S. soldier also was killed Saturday before the assault began, while getting into position with Afghan forces. Forty Americans have been wounded since the offensive began. The attack comes at a time when the war in Afghanistan was being overshadowed by questions on where the war on terror would go next.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stressed that the fighting around Gardez was likely to go on for many days and said he would call up U.S. troop reinforcements as needed. Asked how many U.S. troops might ultimately join the fight to rid Afghanistan of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, Rumsfeld answered: “Whatever it takes.”

President Bush expressed sorrow over the loss of American life but said he was determined to press forward in the battle against al-Qaida fighters, which he said had moved into a dangerous phase.

“People say, ‘Well, the hard part is over with.’ And my answer is, no, it’s not,” Bush said during a speech at an education event in Minneapolis. “And so we sent teams in and there is some serious combat as I speak, and lives are lost. And we send our prayers and tears to those whose families have lost life. But I want to assure the students who are here and the loved ones of those military, defending freedom is a noble cause and it is a just cause.”

U.S. troops also are fighting alongside about 200 special forces troops from a variety of coalition nations, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Norway. U.S. warplanes have dropped 370 bombs since Saturday, including the first use of a thermobaric bomb designed to level a blast against a cave complex believed to contain a concentration of enemy fighters.

Pentagon officials believe as many as 400 al-Qaida and Taliban are holed up in the mountains, but about 200 have been killed in the attack.

In some ways, the clash in the mountains around Gardez was exactly the kind of battle the United States had hoped to avoid. Fighting at 8,000 to 12,000 feet where nighttime temperatures dip to 15 degrees is taxing to both troops and helicopters, which are pushed to the outside limits of their ability to fly.