Taliban moves into abandoned U.S. base

Taliban fighters swarmed over a mountaintop base abandoned last week by the U.S. military following some of the toughest fighting of the Afghan war, according to footage aired Monday by a major satellite television station.

The video by Al-Jazeera is a morale booster for Taliban fighters, though the U.S. insists the decision to withdraw from the base in the Korengal Valley was sound and the area has no strategic value.

The footage showed armed men walking through the former U.S. base, which was strewn with litter and empty bottles, and sitting atop sandbagged gun positions overlooking the steep hillsides and craggy landscape. Fighters said they recovered fuel and ammunition. But a U.S. spokesman said ammunition had been evacuated and the fuel handed over to local residents.

“We don’t want Americans, we don’t want Germans or any other foreigner. We don’t want foreigners, we want peace. We want Taliban and Islam — we don’t want anything else,” one local resident said on the tape.

Another man identified by Al-Jazeera as a local Taliban commander said the militants intended to use the base for attacks on U.S. forces.

Maj. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman for U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, said the Americans destroyed major firing positions and observation posts before they left, and if militants tried to use the base “we have two companies that can do an air assault there anytime we want.”

The pullout last week of the remaining 120 U.S. soldiers from the Korengal was part of a strategy announced last year by the top U.S. and NATO commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to abandon small, difficult-to-defend bases in remote, sparsely populated areas and concentrate forces around major population centers.

Many of those outposts were established years ago to monitor Taliban and al-Qaida infiltration from Pakistan but proved difficult to resupply and defend.

Last October, about 300 insurgents nearly overran a U.S. outpost in Kamdesh, located north of the Korengal Valley, killing eight Americans and three Afghan soldiers. It was the bloodiest battle for U.S. forces since an attack on another remote outpost in July 2008, in which nine Americans died.

“When we repositioned our forces, we knew that there was a real possibility of insurgent forces going into there, but we still believe that decision was the correct one based on the resources that we have available and the objectives that we want to achieve,” said a U.S. spokesman, Col. Wayne Shanks.

The withdrawal from Korengal, which U.S. troops dubbed the “Valley of Death,” marked the end of near-daily battles with insurgents in the 6-mile (10-kilometer) valley in Kunar province. More than 40 U.S. troops were killed there over the last five years.

They included three Navy SEALs who died in a 2005 ambush. Insurgents also shot down a helicopter carrying Special Forces sent to rescue the SEALS, killing another 16 Americans.

Also Monday, an American soldier was killed and several wounded in an explosion at an Afghan National Army facility just outside the capital, Kabul, Shanks said. The blast originally was reported to have killed an Afghan soldier.

Afghanistan’s intelligence service also announced the arrest of nine members of a militant cell and seized nearly a quarter-ton of explosives, foiling a plot to stage suicide bombings and other attacks in Kabul.

The cell could have been linked to five would-be suicide bombers arrested April 8 at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul. Officials said at the time the five were planning to hide out with a support network in the capital before launching attacks.

Intelligence service spokesman Saeed Ansari said four of the suspects were arrested Monday while traveling in a vehicle in the city’s eastern district, while five others were picked up at an Islamic school in Kabul.

He said security forces also confiscated six rifles, two machine guns, two rocket-propelled grenades, 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of explosives, six suicide bomb vests and a vehicle. The dates of the arrests were not disclosed.

The suspects, one of whom was a Pakistani citizen, ranged in age from 16 to 55 and had been given specific responsibilities within the group, such as arranging accommodation or transporting arms, Ansari said. Three members of the group were identified as would-be suicide bombers, although Ansari said the cell possessed enough explosives and vests to equip up to six suicide attackers.

He said the group was acting under orders from a Pakistan-based Taliban faction, which rented a house in eastern Kabul, shipped weapons across the border and provided funds for the purchase of a vehicle to be used in suicide attacks.

The last major attack within Kabul took place Feb. 26, when suicide bombers struck two small hotels in the center of the city, killing at least 16 people, including six Indians. Afghan authorities blamed the attack on Lashkar-e-Taiba, the same Pakistan-based Islamist militia that India blames for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed 166 people.

In the southern province of Kandahar, meanwhile, a remote-controlled bomb planted on a donkey exploded near a police checkpoint Monday, killing three children aged 11, 12 and 15, said Zalmai Ayubi, spokesman for the governor.

The victims were nephews of Fazel Uddin Agha, a tribal elder in Kandahar who served as an election campaign manager for President Hamid Karzai last year, Ayubi said. The blast also wounded two police officers and two civilians.

An American soldier was also killed and several wounded in an explosion at an Afghan National Army facility just outside the capital, Kabul, Shanks, the U.S. military spokesman, said. The blast originally was reported to have killed an Afghan soldier.

Updated with AlJazeera video report.