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Conditions Slow Coalition Troops

Harsh conditions, not the enemy, have taken their toll on a handful of coalition troops looking for elusive al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan, military officials said Sunday.

In the capital Kabul, meanwhile, an Afgahn official said a prisoner being held on suspicion of terrorism at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba had made the reverse trip back to Afghanistan because U.S. officials determined he was mentally ill.

The Afghan official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the man was flown to the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan and would be brought to Kabul for further diagnosis. In all, 363 detainees of 34 nationalities are being held at Guantanamo.

Three British troops were evacuated Saturday to Bagram air base from a mountain in the southeast of the country, Royal Marines spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Harradine said. Two of the soldiers were suffering from altitude sickness and a third had dysentery.

The commander of the 1,000-strong, British-led "Operation Snipe" in southeastern Afghanistan said he was content with progress since the Marines began their mission a week ago, even if no enemy had been killed or captured.

"We're talking about mountains, really hard, difficult, craggy mountains, in which there will be either caves with some al Qaeda in it or there will be munitions," Brigadier Roger Lane told reporters.

The Marines prepared on Sunday to search some of their most hostile terrain so far -- two soaring peaks where Taliban and al Qaeda fighters may be hiding.

The climb up the steep, slippery slopes to 11,000 feet would begin soon, he said.

"If I don't fire a bullet in anger, and I have cleared that area, then in the context of Operation Snipe that will be a success."

A Canadian soldier in a separate mission was flown to Bagram by helicopter for treatment of a knee injury, said Navy Lt. Luc Charron, a spokesman for the 3rd battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

"It's very, very rough terrain over there," Charron said.

Several hundred Canadian soldiers, backed by U.S. air support and some Afghan infantry units, began Operation Torii on Saturday. Charron said it was aimed at gathering intelligence in an area where there had recently been "enemy activity."

Charron said some "underground bunker facilities" had been searched and a half dozen new caves — seen by the coalition as potential enemy hide-outs — had been identified. One abandoned structure had turned up a rocket-launcher and some small arms ammunition.

Coalition troops have been stepping up their hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the east, searching for documents, computer disks or any intelligence that might give them new leads.

The British-led Operation Snipe, launched last week, is sweeping a part of southeast Afghanistan that had never been searched.

Harradine said British troops found "1,000 rounds of ammunition in a small niche in the rocks" Saturday, but soldiers had experienced no hostile fire.

He declined to say when the mission might be completed, saying only that "it's got a long way to go."

The Canadian- and British-led missions both fall under the umbrella of Operation Mountain Lion — the overall U.S.-led search for Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in the eastern half of Afghanistan.

U.S. forces also have been pursuing fugitives across the border in western Pakistan, where the Taliban are regrouping in mountain hide-outs, waiting for the Afghan government to falter, a Taliban intelligence official in hiding said Sunday.

The official, Obeidullah, was an important member of the Taliban command structure as the deputy of Qari Ahmadullah, the intelligence chief targeted and killed by the U.S.-led coalition in a bombing raid in December in eastern Afghanistan.

"We are just waiting, gathering our strength," Obeidullah said.

He said Mullah Mohammed Omar is safe in Afghanistan and continues to lead the Taliban and that Osama bin Laden — "could be anywhere."

Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai on Sunday wound up a two-day visit to his hometown, the southern administrative hub of Kandahar, after encouraging fellow ethnic Pashtuns that international aid would soon be seen in reconstruction projects.

In the north of the country, meanwhile, representatives of two rival factions met in the wake of bitter fighting near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif last week that killed at least six people, local residents said.

The reported meeting between representatives of Gen. Atta Mohammed, military commander of four northern provinces, and Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the deputy defense minister and interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's special representative to the north, comes amid indications of new tensions between the two sides.

Locals reported more armed men on the street than in previous days and said the curfew had been moved up from 10 p.m to 5 p.m.

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