KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. warplanes and helicopter gunships bombarded suspected al-Qaida hide-outs in Afghanistan’s eastern mountains Saturday, opening a new offensive against Taliban and al-Qaida believed regrouping there, Afghan officials said.
On the ground, about 600 Afghan and American forces moved into the same Shah-e-Kot mountains Saturday, said Safi Ullah, head of the local governing council, reached by telephone in Gardez, 20 miles north of the attack.
In neighboring Pakistan, authorities sealed off the border along the mountains to block any fleeing al-Qaida from escape.
The U.S. Central Command in Florida refused comment because the operation was ongoing.
There were no details of any ground fighting, although bombing was continuing into Saturday, Safi Ullah said. The majority of the ground forces were Afghan, Safi Ullah said.
Commander Wazir Khan Zedran, talking to the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press, was quoted as saying al-Qaida had opened fire with mortars from the mountains, even though they hadn’t yet come under ground attack.
U.S. B-52 bombers have been out in force in recent days over Paktia province, site of the new reported offensive.
Afghan officials say al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are regrouping there and just over the border in Pakistan, urging the faithful to wage holy war against U.S. forces.
U.S. officials and Afghan sources estimate 4,000 to 5,000 foreigners who fought for the Taliban and al-Qaida remain inside Afghanistan. Many of them are believed to be in Paktia and other provinces along the Pakistan border.
They are receiving support from a variety of groups, including Kashmiri separatists, Islamic militants in Pakistan and some former officials of Pakistan’s intelligence service, according to Afghan sources.
In Pakistan, a senior government official at the Pakistan border town of Miran Shah said Saturday that troops have blocked all routes to prevent escape of any al-Qaida and Taliban fleeing the attack.
The official, Javed Marwat, said a 60-mile strip with Afghanistan has been closed.
A tribal elder in the area, Haji Rasool Khan, said by telephone that his Madakhel tribe would not give shelter to any al-Qaida on the run.
The last major U.S. bombing in Afghanistan was in January, when airstrikes targeted regrouping Taliban and al-Qaida forces in the eastern Zawar region. In that strike, at least 18 civilians were confirmed dead before an aid group’s count was cut short by continued bombardment. Local officials have told The Associated Press that several dozen civilians had died, but no precise figures are available. At least 35 homes were destroyed.