Marines dig in, jets attack

Armored convoy is struck near newly seized airstrip

U.S. troops to set up a combat base near Taliban stronghold

War On Terrorism

November 27, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Two Navy F-14 Tomcat warplanes attacked an armored convoy yesterday that had been spotted near an airstrip where U.S. Marines had just landed, according to a Navy spokesman.

The Tomcats destroyed some of the 15 vehicles, which included tanks and armored personnel carriers, Cmdr. Ernest Duplessis said.

Marines continued to pour into southwest Afghanistan and prepared to move overland to set up a combat base near the city of Kandahar, officials said.

As many as 500 Marines are on the ground, and upward of 1,200 are expected to arrive by midweek, officials said. From the base they plan to establish outside Kandahar, the last stronghold of Taliban resistance in the country, they are expected to mount raids on enemy troop concentrations and try to disrupt communications.

In northern Afghanistan, alliance forces were still trying to put down an uprising by Taliban troops and followers of Osama bin Laden that began Sunday in a prison outside Mazar-e Sharif. The Taliban troops and their allies were taken there after surrendering in Kunduz.

Hundreds of prisoners were killed and hundreds more, having seized weapons, are still holed up in the prison's basement. U.S. special operations forces and American warplanes were called in to help put down the uprising, officials said.

Five U.S. soldiers were injured during the prison battle yesterday morning when an American satellite-guided bomb missed its target, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. All five were taken by helicopter to Uzbekistan with serious injuries.

In addition, a CIA contract employee was said to have been killed or wounded in the uprising.

The Marines did not take part in the assault on the Afghan column, but their helicopters did fly to the area. Marine spokesman Capt. David Romley did not say who was in the convoy or give any casualty estimates.

He also wouldn't say where the vehicles appeared to be heading, only that they were "in the vicinity of the base."

The Marines began landing Sunday, seizing a remote airstrip southwest of Kandahar built by a wealthy Arab for access to his hunting lodge. A mosque and a large white building abut the airstrip, according to a reporter who went in with the landing force.

Marines and their equipment were arriving by heavy-lift helicopters from the amphibious assault ships USS Peleliu and the USS Bataan in the northern Arabian Sea and by C-130 cargo planes from secret bases outside Afghanistan.

Pentagon officials said the airstrip was seized with no resistance.

Marine Brig. Gen. James Mattis, commander of the attack task force, said yesterday: "The Marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan. Everything went without a hitch."

"They are not an occupying force," Rumsfeld said of the Marines. "Their purpose is to establish a forward base of operations to help pressure the Taliban forces in Afghanistan, to prevent Taliban and al-Qaida forces from moving freely about the country."

President Bush said U.S. ground forces were facing a "a dangerous period of time" and again tried to prepare the public for possible combat deaths.

"This is a period of time in which we're now hunting down the people who are responsible for bombing Americans," he said. "Now, I think the American people understand we're in for a long, long struggle in order to rid the world of terrorism and that there might be loss of life. I pray that not be the case. But our brave men and women who signed up for the military understand the risk ... "

The Marine force will join several hundred special operations troops who have been working in southern Afghanistan for several weeks, blocking roads, attacking Taliban troops and calling in airstrikes. And the Marines will bring more firepower to the fight than those lightly armed units.

Marine weaponry includes Super Cobra gunships, which are equipped with Hellfire missiles, rockets and Gatling guns. The arsenal also includes Harrier jets that can land and take off vertically. Moreover, the Marines can travel on land in armored Humvees and in light-armored vehicles that can fire TOW anti-tank missiles, long-range mortars and 50-caliber machine guns.

One mission of the Marines outside Kandahar is to prevent Taliban troops from escaping into the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan, Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

U.S. airstrikes have increasingly centered on the Kandahar area in recent days, softening up the Taliban forces for the Pashtun tribes fighting them in the city.

"Kandahar, it's sort of the last bastion, we think, of Taliban resistance," Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon. "We think they're going to dig in and fight. And fight perhaps to the end."

One Pentagon official said it was doubtful the Marines would enter Kandahar. Instead, he said, they will leave that part of the battle to the anti-Taliban Pashtun tribes.

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