Marines land near Kandahar
Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Quickening the hunt for Osama bin Laden and top Taliban leaders, U.S. Marines landed Monday outside the southern stronghold of Kandahar and set up a desert airbase. Heavy U.S. bombardment backed up anti-Taliban tribal fighters advancing on the city.
In newly captured Kunduz, wary northern alliance troops were going house-to-house to flush out Taliban stragglers, triggering an occasional firefight. The city, the Taliban's last northern garrison, fell to the alliance a day earlier, after a two-week siege.
At the scene of a bloody prison uprising in Mazar-e-Sharif by captured fighters loyal to bin Laden, heavy new explosions and gunfire rang out for a second day despite official assurances that the insurrection had been quelled. Holdouts barricaded themselves inside a tower and fired rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses said.
The deployment of Marines near Kandahar marks a perilous new phase of a conflict that until now had focused on U.S. airstrikes backing up the opposition northern alliance -- plus limited ground missions by several hundred American special forces fanned out in small units across Afghanistan.
Kandahar, the Taliban's home base and spiritual center, has come under fierce bombardment since the U.S.-led military campaign began Oct. 7, and the Taliban have vowed to fight to the death rather than abandon their last citadel. In the last three weeks, the Taliban have lost their grip on three-quarters of Afghanistan, plus the capital, Kabul.
Loud explosions rocked the area around Kandahar overnight and early Monday, with bright flares illuminating the night sky, a witness in the city said. Tribal leaders said their fighters, backed by U.S. bombardment, had pushed to within five miles of the city.
Pakistani journalist Nasir Malik, who is in Kandahar, said the center of the city was quiet Monday afternoon, with truckloads of armed Taliban soldiers driving through the streets. He said the Taliban appeared to be in control of the city airport too.
Malik said there was no sign of local Taliban officials in their offices. However, most of the top Taliban leadership is believed to be holed up in and around Kandahar, including their supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The foreign minister of the northern alliance said he believed Omar and bin Laden were close together, but did not disclose his reasons for thinking so.
"The forces of the Taliban and the terrorist groups have been contained ... they have nowhere to go," Abdullah, who uses only one name, told a news conference in Kabul.
Ferried in by helicopter, the vanguard of Marines seized a secret desert airstrip within striking distance of Kandahar, their commander said. He said more than 1,000 of them would be on the ground within 48 hours.
"The Marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan," Gen. James Mattis, commander of the attack task force, said from aboard the assault ship USS Peleliu. After securing the sand airfield, troops set up landing lights so fixed-wing transport aircraft could land with more troops and supplies, he said.
In Kunduz, which fell Sunday after a two-week siege, the northern alliance was trying to consolidate its hold on the city. Soldiers went house-to-house looking for holdout Taliban and foreign troops, shooting it out with some and taking others prisoner.
As three captured men in turbans were placed into a pickup truck, hands bound behind their backs with dirty rags, children crowded around and taunted them, yelling "Talib! Talib!"
Foreign fighters who surrendered or were captured during the siege of Kunduz staged Sunday's uprising at a fortress-prison outside Mazar-e-Sharif.
The prisoners -- about 300 Chechens, Pakistanis and Arabs -- seized weapons and turned on their guards, triggering fighting so fierce that U.S. airstrikes were called in to quell it.
The alliance said most of the prisoners were killed, but a hard core of holdouts was still battling alliance troops on Monday. A fighter named Massood who witnessed Monday's fighting said several dozen prisoners were firing rockets at northern alliance troops.
Before the fall of Kunduz, Pakistan had appealed for safety guarantees for any of its nationals who were among those captured. Foreign ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan avoided criticizing the United States for its role in putting down the insurrection, saying only that prisoners who surrender should be treated in accordance with international law.
Khan said it had asked the United Nations and the Red Cross to try to find out whether there were any Pakistanis among the dead in Mazar-e-Sharif.
By late afternoon, an aide to the local commander, Gen. Rashid Dostum, said only a few prisoners were still alive and fighting. He did not indicate there was any attempt to get them to surrender again.
"Those who are left over will be dead," said Dostum's political adviser Alim Razim. "None of them can escape."