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Saturday, 27 April, 2002, 18:34 GMT 19:34 UK
Fierce Afghan clash as Rumsfeld visits
Donald Rumsfeld with Hamid Karzai
Rumsfeld pledged support for an Afghan national army
Rival militias have exchanged heavy fire around Gardez in eastern Afghanistan, reportedly killing at least 25 people.

Forces loyal to warlord Padshah Khan Zadran, who was ousted from power in February, on Saturday unleashed a ferocious rocket barrage on Gardez, the capital of Paktia province.

The provincial governor, Taj Mohammad Wardak, said the bombardment came after a ground assault on Gardez by Padshah Khan's troops had been repulsed. He said all the casualties were civilians.

The fighting came as US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared to rule out any expansion of the international peacekeeping force during a meeting with interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai in Kabul.

Instead Mr Rumsfeld outlined plans to help train and fund a new national army to stabilise the country.

Mr Karzai thanked the defence secretary, but hinted that many would be disappointed by the decision not to put more foreign forces on the ground.

Many parts of Afghanistan are controlled by a potentially explosive mixture of warlords and militias.

Mr Rumsfeld later visited the western city of Herat, where he met the powerful local governor Ismail Khan.

US troops' role

Three rockets were fired at Kabul's main airport just hours before Mr Rumsfeld's arrival. No casualties or damage were reported.

Before his talks with Mr Karzai, the US defence secretary met US troops, telling them that they were on the "front line between freedom and fear" and Afghanistan was "a proving ground" for future operations.

The Afghanistan theatre has been the first one, but it won't be the last - it is a place where you are setting an example for how this battle has to be conducted

Donald Rumsfeld
The BBC's Ben Brown, at the Bagram airbase near Kabul, says this is a strong hint that the Americans have Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in their sights.

Mr Rumsfeld refused to comment on reports of US special forces operating in Pakistan.

But reports from Pakistan say American and Pakistani troops have raided an Islamic school close to the Afghan border, in their first joint operation since the start of the war against the al-Qaeda network.

Local residents and Muslim clerics said about 200 Pakistani troops and 10 US soldiers stormed the school near Miram Shah, 250 kilometres south-west of Peshawar.

They said they failed to find any al-Qaeda fighters.

Al-Qaeda threat

America and its allies' main concern in the region is an increase in guerrilla activities by Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and the Taleban in the coming months, as winter snows melt.

Us and Afghan soldiers
Afghan and Allied soldiers keep the peace in Kabul
Mr Rumsfeld told journalists before arriving: "My guess is as spring comes and the weather improves they will try to communicate with each other, they will try to attack the interim authority as well as US and coalition forces."

US, British and Afghan troops have continued to search caves and other al-Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan, gathering weapons, documents and other materials left behind when enemy forces fled the area.

Many of the leaders of al-Qaeda and Afghanistan's former Taleban rulers are believed to be hiding in the rugged tribal north-west of Pakistan, able to travel between eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan through a mountainous border area impossible to seal off.

The US and UK governments have refused to confirm whether their troops are fighting in Pakistan, but if true it means a whole new front has opened in the war against terrorism.

"We do not characterise what other countries are doing or what we are doing in other countries," Mr Rumsfeld said.

But he did acknowledge that "agencies of the United States Government" were involved in the arrest last month in Pakistan of Abu Zubaydah, a senior lieutenant to Bin Laden.

Officials in Islamabad said on Thursday that the two countries share intelligence, but they denied that Pakistani forces were operating under the guidance of US advisers.

The BBC's Jane Bennett-Powell
"Rumsfeld declined to say how many [al-Qaeda] were left"
The BBC's regional analyst Sadeeq Saba
"Forces loyal to the former governor of Gardez started firing rockets at the city"
See also:

27 Apr 02 | South Asia
US forces 'join Pakistani raid'
07 Apr 02 | South Asia
Rocket fired at Kabul peacekeepers
08 Apr 02 | South Asia
'Significant' Afghan papers found
14 Apr 02 | South Asia
US troops kill al-Qaeda fighters
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