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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

Hundreds of Marines Land Near Kandahar; Kunduz Falls

Military: Troops' arrival broadens ground war and adds firepower. More are expected within days. Taliban foes capture northern city, crush prisoner revolt.

November 26, 2001|PAUL RICHTER and PETER G. GOSSELIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A wave of U.S. Marines landed Sunday in the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar, the first step in a buildup of forces that may soon more than double the number of American ground troops in Afghanistan.

Soon after nightfall, about 200 to 300 Marines were flown by helicopter from ships in the northern Arabian Sea to an airfield southwest of Kandahar, said a senior defense official who asked to remain unidentified. Over the next several days, hundreds more will be carried to the airfield by C-130 aircraft to reinforce the unit until it numbers more than 1,000, the official said.

The official declined to comment specifically on the Marines' job, saying only that they are there "in support of the overall mission."

But the Marine force in the area will include troops trained in counter-terrorism who are qualified to help press the battle against the retreating Taliban, and to take part in the search for leaders of the Taliban and for Osama bin Laden.

In other developments Sunday:

* U.S. forces on the ground and in the air helped crush an outbreak of violence by about 300 non-Afghan Taliban fighters imprisoned at a fort near Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said. Hundreds of prisoners were reported killed, and there was word that a CIA operative on the ground was wounded.

* Northern Alliance forces reported that they took control of the strategic northern city of Kunduz without a major battle after hundreds of Taliban surrendered or fled. Several thousand jubilant alliance fighters joined the march into the city as night fell.

* Pushtun forces said they ambushed a group of Taliban militiamen and seized control of an eight-mile section of the major road connecting Kandahar to the southeast borderlands.

The arrival of the Marines in Kandahar marks an evolution in a war that began entirely as an air campaign and has only gradually been broadened with ground forces.

American ground forces in Afghanistan have so far consisted of hundreds of U.S. Special Forces troops. They have helped coordinate airstrikes, supplied opposition forces and begun the search for the leaders of the Taliban and of Bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. At times, they have engaged in ground combat.

But these Special Forces, while versatile, are light units; the Marines will add firepower and mobility to the ground effort against the Taliban. Although the senior defense official offered no details of the equipment they will use, it will presumably include attack helicopters, fighter aircraft and armored personnel carriers.

Dr. Khayal Mohammed, who operates a clinic for refugees in the Pakistani border town of Chaman, said people arriving early this morning from Kandahar reported seeing tanks and soldiers at that city's airport.

By landing at Kandahar, the Marines, who are part of the 15th and 26th Marine expeditionary units, will be close to the last remaining stronghold of Taliban forces, and the political center where the Taliban fighters may make their last stand.

The Marine units that have been deployed in the Arabian Sea are based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

In a briefing last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz pointed out that the addition of Marines would add significantly to the U.S. forces' capability in the region.

He noted that they were "special operations-capable" units. He said their presence would allow the U.S. forces to cover more area in the country and make possible "closing with and killing the enemy."

The Marines have also been trained in urban warfare, and could effectively take on the risky job of searching city neighborhoods if Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders hide in that setting, officials have pointed out.

While the Marines' presence will strengthen the U.S. military's hand, it will also entail risks. Many Taliban fighters remain in pockets throughout the region, and they have vowed to inflict casualties.

Arms Said to Have Been Smuggled to Prisoners

Sunday's prison riot at a fortress in Qala-i-Jangy, 10 miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif, involved Pakistani, Arab and Chechen fighters who had surrendered following a two-week siege of Kunduz, according to officials in Washington and Afghanistan.

The prisoners used smuggled weapons against their Northern Alliance captors, who fought back with the assistance of U.S. warplanes and Special Forces troops, according to accounts from the scene.

If the death toll is correct, analysts said, the incident could complicate American efforts to maintain a delicate alliance with Pakistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Accounts from the scene portrayed a bloody revolt in which the prisoners battled their captors for more than four hours with smuggled Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns and grenades, and as many as 40 U.S. Special Forces troops swooped in to take control.

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