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U.S. Special Forces Launch Attack on al Qaeda Group Holed Up at a Hospital

Aired January 27, 2002 - 22:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: There is a developing story out of Afghanistan at this hour. U.S. Special Forces have apparently launched an attack on a hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Several armed al Qaeda fighters have been holed up in that facility for several weeks since the city fell to anti-Taliban forces. Gunfire has been heard from the hospital area, and CNN's Ben Wedeman has been following this story for us, and joins us now with the very latest. Ben, what can you tell us?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Catherine, it's gone quiet now. I would assume that in fact the assault has now ended. Earlier, we saw a U.S. Special Forces member actually creeping along the windows right outside the ward where the al Qaeda members were staying.

Now, the attack began about an hour ago, with some very large explosions in the distance. That could have been a diversionary tactic of some sort, just to keep the al Qaeda members off. And it was followed by secondary explosions, and then some fairly intense machine gunfire, both coming from the hospital and going in the direction of it.

Now, right near where we are, there is a barricade that has been put up on one of the roads leading to the hospital, and that barricade is manned by Afghan troops, as well as one member of the U.S. Special Forces who would not allow us to go anywhere near the hospital.

But it appears at this point that the assault may be over -- Catherine.

CALLAWAY: Ben, this has been going on for quite some time. They have been holed up there for a number of weeks, right?

WEDEMAN: About six weeks. They entered the hospital possibly before the fall of the Taliban. Many of them had been hurt. And they were heavily armed. They threatened to blow themselves up if anybody tried to take them out. And it's been a standoff like that ever since, really. They are known to be heavily armed, they have threatened to kill anyone who comes into the ward without their permission. And by and large, the only ones who have been allowed in were doctors, and they were told about two and a half to three weeks ago that they weren't allowed in either. So yes, it's been a long, tense standoff here. CALLAWAY: They had to have been receiving some type of assistance, to survive that long in the hospital?

WEDEMAN: Well, about three weeks ago they announced that they would no longer accept any food or water, and they went very quiet for a while. But they clearly were still in there, and we were told -- we were at the hospital the day before yesterday -- we were told by people there that there is a good possibility that members of the hospital staff themselves may in fact be slipping food and water inside. We were told that there is a certain amount of sympathy for these al Qaeda members, simply on a very basic level, that they are all Muslims and they should help one another.

So they have been surviving somewhere now for about three weeks, without any obvious form of sustenance.

CALLAWAY: How long did this activity take place tonight, from the beginning to the end?

WEDEMAN: I would say just short of an hour, really. We were awaken by these huge blasts which shook our windows and shook us out of bed, and probably no more than 55 minutes, maximum an hour.

CALLAWAY: All right. CNN's Ben Wedeman joining us from Kandahar. Thank you, Ben.

Now, let's gets more on this from Major General Don Shepperd, exactly how this took place. And thanks for being with us on this Sunday evening, general.

MAJ. GEN. DONALD SHEPPERD (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Certainly, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: He says it took about an hour, and certainly a number of explosions, a number of gunfire. What type of group would have gone into this hospital, and what would they have done?

SHEPPERD: Well, this is a vintage Special Forces attack, and another chapter in a bizarre war over there. These people have been holed up for several weeks. We could have attacked that hospital at any time, but it just makes sense to stand off, try to get them to surrender, so you don't have to kill them, damage the hospital or kill anyone else in the hospital, or risk doing that.

Remember, one of the original members jumped from the second story and then blew himself up with a grenade. So we took them at their word. Most likely, what a Special Forces team would do would be if they didn't want to kill them, just throw in explosion devices, stunning devices, if you will, that are kind of standard for hostage rescues, that type of thing. They basically are loud bangs, if you will, that knock people to the floor and stun them, and then you would see a small team go in and do what they had to do to capture and secure the rest of the people in there.

CALLAWAY: But six weeks, that's a long time to wait. SHEPPERD: Yeah, it's a long time to wait, but again, I assume -- again, we could have taken them any tame, it's just a matter of going in and shooting our way in, but you would have damaged a lot of other things and risked the killing of a lot of other people. So I assume that we got our intelligence right, and we went in when we thought the time was right, and took our time doing it, which is a prudent way to do things.

We didn't want another "Black Hawk Down." Hopefully, we didn't have one. We still have lots to get from the Pentagon on this.

CALLAWAY: Right. Small troops, those small groups that go in on this, how large?

SHEPPERD: Well, a standard Special Forces team is 12 people. Now, I don't want to reveal anything, first of all, because I don't know anything, and secondly I wouldn't want to reveal the tactics. But basically, we have teams, such as the Delta Force, that are designed to go in with anywhere from one person to two people to large teams and multiples of teams. So it just depends on what they figured they need in this particular instance to go in.

We got the capability of going in all the way from one person to a very large military formations. Just depending on what the military mission planners thought was required for this particular strike.

CALLAWAY: Let's talk a little bit about a raid that went a bit awry today and some of the activities that are going on in the Kandahar region. Your reaction to that today?

SHEPPERD: Yeah, we are you talking about the raid on the complex that was north of Kandahar. There are reports coming in that villagers have said, "we attacked wrong people." That people were there negotiating with the Taliban to surrender the weapons that were in the area, and we attacked those people that were really the side that was pro-Hamid Karzai government.

Still, lots to be sorted out here. I don't know if any of that is true. So far, the Pentagon says our indication was that the arms were there, the people were there, they were Taliban, and we went after them, and that's what they are standing by so far, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: Far from a safe place to be right now, isn't it?

SHEPPERD: It's dangerous all over that county, it's going to be dangerous for a long, long time.

CALLAWAY: All right. Thank you for being with us again, General Shepperd.

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