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Pressuring The Remnants

Canadian, British and U.S. forces spread out through eastern Afghanistan on Saturday searching for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in what the country's foreign minister hoped would be the last major battle.

The introduction on Saturday of Canadian troops, experts in high altitude fighting like their British counterparts, was the latest buildup of forces in an operation that will scour many so far untouched mountain areas that are favorite rebel hiding places near the Pakistan border.

Asked to comment on speculation that the operations marked the last major battle of the war, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told a news conference: "I hope as well. And I pray that it will be the last. But mentally we should be prepared if something happens.

"If there's still pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda here and there, who are able to pose threats, our friends should be ready to take action and we should be ready to help."

The deployment of several hundred Canadian soldiers in "Operation Torri" by helicopter to an undisclosed location was separate from the British-led "Operation Snipe" and the wider U.S. "Operation Mountain Lion."

"Several hundred troops deployed today out of their staging base here in Bagram and are moving forward in a Canadian-led coalition operation into eastern Afghanistan," the senior Canadian officer for Afghanistan, Colonel John Collin, told reporters at Bagram air base.

He said one Canadian soldier had suffered a leg injury in "Operation Torii," but it was not a battle wound and "the injury is certainly not life-threatening."

The Canadians took off in Chinook helicopters escorted by U.S. Apache helicopter gunships to operate in their most difficult terrain so far, ranging from 7,000 feet to 11,000 feet high.

British Royal Marines were sweeping through other high-altitude terrain in what a British spokesman said on Saturday was a "big push."

Elsewhere, U.S. forces said that together with Afghan troops they had disarmed a pro-Taliban, al Qaeda village in the south and searched two compounds in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, uncovering intelligence.

U.S. Marine Captain Steven O'Connor told reporters at Bagram that two sweeps by U.S. forces found weapons including an anti-aircraft piece as well as "intelligence" material.

Royal Marine spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paul Harradine said the 1,000-strong British troops, backed by U.S. ground and air power, had found a cave with 2,000 rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition.

"Today (Saturday) should see a big push, but the ground they're covering is fantastically difficult," Harradine told reporters at Bagram, the U.S.-led coalition's headquarters north of Kabul.

He added the Marines had so far covered around 20 percent of their selected target area in an undisclosed mountain range, after six days of surveillance, preparation and operations.

The operations are the largest deployment of coalition forces since March when U.S. and Afghan troops attacked Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in the Shahi-i-Kot valley of eastern Afghanistan in Operation Anaconda, the biggest ground battle of the war.

The militant Islamic al Qaeda network, blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States, appears to have dispersed into small groups since then and many are believed to have slipped across the porous border into Pakistan, where some U.S. personnel are helping Pakistani forces.

In Islamabad on Saturday, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said small bands of al Qaeda militants could have crossed into his country from neighboring Afghanistan but vowed to do his utmost to track them down with American help.

Musharraf said any action would be taken by Pakistani, not American, forces, but said U.S. and FBI assistance was useful, especially in communications and electronic tracking.

The U.S. Special Forces scouring Pakistan's lawless frontier region for fugitive Taliban and al-Qaida have angered heavily armed tribesmen, who warn they are ready to do battle if the American soldiers don't leave soon.

Meanwhile, Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai returned to his hometown of Kandahar on Saturday to encourage his fellow ethnic Pashtun's that international aid will bring them better times ahead.

"Wherever I have gone I have been greeted warmly and before I requested aid, they themselves offer it," Karzai told about 200 tribal elders in a huge, brightly colored tent at the governor's palace. "I'm quite satisfied with our money situation."

Karzai he has had to concentrate on finding foreign aid because the Taliban left the country bankrupt.

Thousands of people turned out to see Karzai. Some of them threw roses at his car. Karzai traveled in a convoy of close to 100 vehicles, led by U.S. Special Forces.

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