KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — With grenades and volleys of automatic fire, Afghan troops and U.S. special forces soldiers wearing "I Love New York" buttons stormed a hospital in Kandahar on Monday and killed a band of al-Qaida fighters who had been holed up there for two months.
U.S. and Afghan troops surrounded Mir Wais Hospital before dawn and traded fire with the Arab fighters inside for hours until — just after the noon call to Islamic prayers — American troops barked, "Stand clear!" and they and the Afghans hurled grenades through the hospital windows to launch a final assault.
A series of 20 explosions sent out showers of glass from the hospital, already burning from the morning's fighting, and the pop-pops of pistol shots and rattle of automatic weapons fire followed as troops went in.
Afghan and American forces said all six Arabs holed up in a second-floor ward were killed. There were no casualties among the Americans or the Afghans fighting alongside them.
"These Arabs fought to the death," said a U.S. soldier, who identified himself only as Maj. Chris, who described the battle as "a very hard gunfight."
The dramatic raid ended the long standoff with the al-Qaida gunmen, who had been left at the hospital by their Taliban allies before the Taliban surrendered Kandahar in early December. After tribal Afghan forces took control of the city, the gunmen — who had brought weapons and explosives with them — refused to submit, threatening to kill themselves and others if anyone tried to take them into custody.
The siege at Mir Wais hospital began when Afghan authorities issued an ultimatum to the al-Qaida fighters to surrender at around 3:40 a.m. as U.S. and Afghan troops moved into place around the facility. The gunmen refused the ultimatum, and there was a burst of gunfire and loud explosions.
"Early in the morning, the American soldiers came," said Najabullah, an Afghan commander. "The Arabs saw them, and they started fighting." He said the gunmen had thrown grenades. A fire broke out, and black smoke poured from the hospital wing.
Special forces troops, heavily armed and with the antennas of back-mounted satellite phones dangling over their heads, took up positions with the Afghans.
For nine hours, they moved into position, witnessed by The Associated Press from a rooftop. Sharpshooters crouched in crannies of the walled compound and crept along the ledge of the second-floor ward where the al-Qaida men were holed up.
After the noon call to prayer, the final assault was launched.
"Up to the last minute, we told every man to surrender," Chris, the special forces officer, said. "But none of them listened."
Afghan commanders said three of the Arabs were killed by grenades and three others in the assault, some of them hiding under beds. Afghan commander Lali Saliki, who was among those who stormed the ward, said he saw one surviving fighter groping for a gun and shot him.
"He was starting to shoot us," Saliki said.
In the aftermath of the battle, the bloodied ward was littered with limbs blown off by the grenades, with bodies under a bed and laying about the floor. Pale, thin fighters lay dead, in sweaters and uniforms, half covered under blankets thrown over them. Mattresses appeared soaked in blood.
Chris called the operation "100-percent Afghan" and said the Americans acted only as advisers. But figures in the jackets and khakis worn by special forces were visible in the thick of the action. An Associated Press reporter saw at least one throwing explosives.
The al-Qaida fighters were the last of 10 or so wounded and ill fighters who barricaded themselves in the hospital. On Jan. 8, one fighter tried to escape and blew himself up with a grenade as Afghan guards surrounded him. Two other men were also said to have escaped, but that was never confirmed.
In December, two gunmen were captured when soldiers used the only doctor the men trusted to trick them. The gunmen were handed over to U.S. forces.
At Washington's Georgetown University, Karzai told thousands of young Afghan-Americans jammed into a basketball arena that Afghanistan needed their help, and he vowed to make good use of $4.5 billion in aid pledged by donor nations last week.
"You are the future of our country," Karzai said. "Study hard, work hard, make money and bring it to Afghanistan."
In Afghanistan, a delegation of distraught villagers trekked to Kandahar to complain to Afghan authorities Sunday that U.S. Army special forces killed innocent people in a night-time raid four days earlier.
The Pentagon said U.S. troops attacked a Taliban arms depot north of Kandahar, killing about 15 people, capturing 27 others and destroying a large cache of weapons.
But the leaders from the remote town of Khas Uruzgan claimed U.S. forces made a mistake, bombing their town hall and clinic, and killing and arresting men loyal to Karzai.
Before leaving for the United States, Karzai said he would use the trip to push for the expansion of a multinational security force — currently limited to the capital, Kabul — to the rest of Afghanistan.
Afghan officials believe troops are needed in the countryside to deal with regional warlords and armed gangs. They have indicated they want American troops to participate.
In other developments:
— Marjan the lion, who was blinded by a grenade in the mid-1990s and came to symbolize Afghanistan's suffering during 23 years of war, was buried Monday at Kabul's zoo. He was found dead of apparent old age in his cage on Saturday.
— Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ruled out granting prisoner-of-war status to suspected al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists held in a makeshift prison at a U.S. Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
—Karzai's government adopted Afghanistan's royalist-era green, black and red flag as the country's new flag. The flag was used until King Mohammed Zaher Shah was deposed in 1973.