Offensive based on ‘credible reports’ of Taliban
GHAZNI, Afghanistan – The U.S. military received “credible reporting” of a sizable Taliban force at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, leading to the latest offensive in that area, a top American general said Thursday.Army Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director for operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington that the number of enemy killed or captured so far in the operation by coalition and Afghan troops was “in the teens.”He said he was not aware of any high-value Taliban targets being found in the area and said the intelligence report did not indicate the presence of al-Qaida fighters.Ham added that the offensive had been hampered by bad weather so troops were still moving into position in the remote mountainous area, which was heavily bombarded in late 2001 as U.S. troops hunted Osama bin Laden and his associates after the Sept. 11 attacks.On Wednesday, U.S. officials announced that hundreds of coalition soldiers had launched an offensive in Tora Bora targeting foreign fighters, whom they initially said included al-Qaida.Asked about cooperation with Afghan neighbor Pakistan in policing the frontier, Ham said military leaders communicate with the Pakistanis but there is no close coordination. The Pakistanis are conducting their own operations, he said.On Thursday, Taliban militants held a second round of face-to-face talks with South Korean officials on the fate of 19 captive church volunteers but there was no word of a breakthrough.Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the Korean delegation told militant negotiators they don’t have the power to free eight Taliban prisoners held by Afghan authorities – a key Taliban demand. He said Taliban leaders would decide soon whether to continue the talks.South Korean officials were not immediately available for comment.The two sides talked for three hours at the offices of the Afghan Red Crescent in Ghazni. The International Red Cross helped facilitate the talks. The Taliban negotiators left in Red Cross vehicles without speaking to reporters.The meeting came after Monday’s release of two women who were among 23 South Koreans kidnapped by the militants July 19 as they traveled by bus from Kabul to the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Two males hostages had been slain earlier, meaning 14 women and five men remain captive.Two Taliban representatives first talked with South Korean officials on Friday and Saturday at the Red Crescent office after the Afghan government agreed to guarantee the safety of the militant delegation.The Taliban want South Korea’s government to pressure Afghan leaders to free eight imprisoned militants and will not harm the remaining Korean hostages while talks continue, Ahmadi said.The Afghan government was heavily criticized in March for freeing five Taliban prisoners to win the release of an Italian journalist, and officials have ruled out any further such deals, saying they would encourage more kidnappings.Ahmadi said the release of the two Korean women was a show of goodwill. South Korean officials have called for the unconditional release of the other hostages, while also urging Afghan authorities to show flexibility.—Associated Press writers Lolita Baldor in Washington and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.