Pentagon wants AC-130s in Uzbekistan
AP Military WriterPOPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. (AP) -- Moving to cut off escape routes, the Navy gave notice it will stop and board merchant shipping off the coast of Pakistan if ships are suspected of carrying Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaida leaders.
"They keep cutting and bobbing and dodging and weaving, but we keep looking," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said when asked how close the military was to finding bin Laden and his terrorist cohorts.
Gen. Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the Navy has not stopped and boarded any ships yet off of Pakistan.
U.S. forces have destroyed two or three enemy aircraft in recent weeks, but officials do not know if they were carrying Taliban or al-Qaida leaders trying to flee Afghanistan, Pace said at the Pentagon.
Rumsfeld said the Pentagon would like to move low-flying, deadly AC-130 gunships closer to northern Afghanistan to support anti-Taliban forces in their battle for control of Kunduz, one of two Taliban holdouts.
Rumsfeld would not confirm reports that Uzbekistan has agreed to allow AC-130s to fly from its territory and said none has been based there so far.
"It would be helpful for us to have AC-130s up north, particularly when you have a situation like Kunduz because that particular weapons system and platform can put out an enormous amount of ordnance with a great deal of precision," he told reporters en route to Pope Air Force Base, where he received a tour of an AC-130 on the tarmac.
AC-130s have been used heavily against Taliban and al Qaida targets in southern Afghanistan. One of their most fearsome aspects is a pair of 20mm Gatling guns, which each can fire 2,500 rounds of ammunition per minute.
Rumsfeld confirmed the Air Force's new high-altitude unmanned surveillance plane, the Global Hawk, is now operating over Afghanistan for the first time. Pace said it has been flying over Afghanistan for a day.
In Afghanistan, the commander of the six-week-old war has met with anti-Taliban forces to urge them to treat their prisoners humanely.
Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command, met with generals in the northern alliance around Bagram air base north of Kabul and around the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, said Pace.
"He has explained to them our needs and received from them their needs," Pace said. "Among other things, he has emphasized the fact that if there are any prisoners they be humanely treated."
U.S. teams have been testing areas where officials suspect the al-Qaida terrorist network made biological and chemical weapons, Pace said. No test results have come back yet, however, Pace said.
"There was one place where the only vial that had English on it said 'anthrax.' That kind of gives you pause," Pace said. "We're doing the analysis on it."
A U.S. helicopter crash-landed in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, injuring four crew members, according to U.S. Central Command. The statement said the cause of the accident is unknown but that it was not due to hostile fire.
A Pentagon spokesman said the injuries, including several broken bones, were not considered life-threatening. The helicopter crew was evacuated and the helicopter removed.
Tuesday's U.S. air strikes concentrated on areas near Kunduz and Kandahar, the two last remaining Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman Richard McGraw said.
He said aircraft conducted 146 missions over Afghanistan, but did not disclose how many bombed targets. Many of the missions were flown to assist anti-Taliban insurgents.
As many as 1,500 Marines specially trained for complex missions such as counterterrorism probably will be sent to Afghanistan soon, perhaps this week, a senior U.S. official said. The Marines could provide security for other U.S. forces or help Army and Air Force special operations troops expand the search for Osama bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida terrorist network.
However, Pentagon officials have not made a final decision on sending in the Marines, the official said, nor have they determined how many troops would be sent and for what tasks. A small advance team might slip into Afghanistan first to arrange for the others' arrival, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Marines are very good at fighting," said Pace, a Marine Corps general. "And if Gen. Franks wants fighters on the ground and he puts Marines in, he'll have what he wants."
Two groups of Marines are on ships in the northern Arabian Sea.
They are Marine Expeditionary Units, groups of about 2,200 fighters, pilots and support staff trained to be the first large units to respond to a military crisis. Each unit is anchored by a battalion of about 1,500 Marine infantry troops, who are supported by groups of attack and transport helicopters, fighter jets and armored vehicles.
One is the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., which is based on the USS Peleliu and its support ships. The other unit in the Arabian Sea is the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejune, N.C., based on the USS Bataan.
Sending in the Marines would substantially increase the number of U.S. troops on the ground. Rumsfeld has said several hundred U.S. special forces are in Afghanistan now, including Army Green Beret and Delta Force units.