Tue, Nov 27, 2001 - Page 1 News List

US Marines set up base in Afghanistan

REUTERS , CHAMAN, PAKISTAN, AND ABOARD USS PELELIU, ARABIAN SEA

US Marines review Farsi vocabulary on Sunday on the USS Peleliu before the launch of an assault against an airstrip in southern Afghanistan.

PHOTO: AP

US Marines swooped into the Taliban's backyard, setting up a southern Afghan bridgehead yesterday to take the war on Osama bin Laden and his protectors to a crucial new phase.

Unopposed, hundreds of the crack troops ferried in by helicopter overnight took an airstrip near Kandahar, within striking distance of the Taliban's spiritual home and final redoubt.

"We are going to support the Afghan people's effort to free themselves of the terrorists and the people who support terrorists," said General James Mattis on the USS Peleliu, the Marines' assault ship in the Arabian Sea.

Up to 1,000 Marines, with armour and supplies, were to be flown in rapidly as Washington showed its resolve to catch bin Laden. It blames the Saudi-born militant for the Sept. 11 suicide airliner attacks in the US that killed about 4,000 people.

Washington, and the Northern Alliance it supports, suspect bin Laden is still in the shrinking Kandahar area, the only region the Taliban still controls after the loss of Kunduz in the north.

But mystery shrouded the exact whereabouts of the man with a US$25 million bounty on his head -- and of his host, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Heavily armed US AC-130 gunships and attack jets also pummelled targets in Kandahar overnight and in the morning, but witnesses said the Taliban remained in control. "There is no apparent sign they are retreating, but the Taliban is in very sparse numbers," one witness said.

US forces were also moving into Kandahar's main airport closer to the city, tribal forces said.

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