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Associated Press

BAGRAM, Afghanistan (AP) - Firefights between U.S.-led special forces and suspected al-Qaida terrorists left up to four of the suspects dead, a U.S. general said Tuesday, detailing attacks in an eastern region where allied leaders say pockets of al-Qaida fighters are holed up.

No allied soldiers were hurt. Maj. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck said that while the hunt for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters has weakened the enemy, it still had the ability to launch "low-level" terror attacks such as suicide and car bombings.

Hagenbeck, commander of allied troops in Afghanistan, said the clashes occurred about one mile from the Pakistan border, northeast of the city of Khost, where coalition forces have been stepping up the hunt for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.

In recent days, the U.S. has gained a toehold across the border into Pakistan's lawless tribal lands, with a small American force assisting Pakistani troops in their search for fugitives.

In the first of the two attacks, Australian military officials said their special forces shot some attackers Monday after coming under mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

"Our soldiers returned fire, killing or wounding two of the terrorists," said Brig. Mike Hannan, a spokesman for the Australian military in Canberra.

Hagenbeck said the bodies of the two suspected al-Qaida gunmen were dragged away by fellow fighters.

In the second attack, Hagenbeck said two others were killed before dawn Tuesday. Australian special forces were also involved in that firefight, U.S. officials said.

"We knew how they would react once the sun went down last night. So we were ready for that and we killed two … as they were coming back through the area," Hagenbeck told reporters at Bagram air base, north of Kabul.

It wasn't clear why the attackers were identified as al-Qaida suspects rather than Taliban.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Bryan Hilferty said coalition special forces had been staking out the area near the Pakistani border for two days when allied troops came under fire on Monday morning.

Hilferty said a 200-man quick reaction force - two infantry companies from the 101st Airborne Division - were flown in by helicopter two hours later and found mortars, grenades and machine-gun ammunition in a sweep of buildings and nearby caves. He said the surviving fighters appeared to be part of a larger group that had fled into surrounding mountains.

The clashes occurred in the same eastern region where the last major battles against the Taliban and al-Qaida were fought in March during Operation Anaconda - the largest U.S.-led ground offensive in Afghanistan.

Hagenbeck acknowledged that the hunt for terrorist suspects had become more difficult because al-Qaida and Taliban concentrations had dispersed since March.

"I think that they still do have a command and control structure in place," he said. "All the reports that I get from a variety of intelligence sources tells me that they have the ability to conduct low-level terrorist activities."

He declined to say how many al-Qaida remained beyond saying "not thousands." He said they were mostly "middle-level al-Qaida leadership."

He described Monday's shootings "an unconfirmed kill," but said there is "no question" that the two shot Tuesday were killed.

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Hilferty, the U.S. military spokesman, conceded that the security situation in eastern Afghanistan had deteriorated because of recent flare-ups of factional fighting, but that wasn't stopping coalition troops from conducting operations.

"Certainly over the last couple weeks it's gotten a little worse in the Khost and Gardez area, but still we are free to move around," Hilferty said.

Factional fighting continued Tuesday nearby in the eastern city of Gardez. Hezat Ullah, a local official, said from Gardez that rockets were fired into the city on Monday, killing three civilians and injuring three more.

Up to 28 people have been killed in recent fighting there between soldiers loyal to warlord Bacha Khan Zardran and forces of Gardez Gov. Taj Mohammed Wardak.

Still, refugees continue returning in large numbers to parts of the country.

The U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday that more than 400,000 Afghans had come back since March. Most of them have come from Pakistan, with the majority going to the capital of Kabul and the eastern province of Nangarhar.

Some 2 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and 1.5 million to Iran during 23 years of war.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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