Marine Cobras battle armored column

Tuesday, November 27, 2001

SOUTHERN AFGHAN-ISTAN -- Newly landed U.S. Marines went into combat for the first time late Monday, sending helicopter gunships to attack armored vehicles "in the vicinity of" their new base in southern Afghanistan.

The AH-1W Cobras assaulted 15 tanks and armored personnel carriers and destroyed some of them, a Marine spokesman said, indicating combat continued as he spoke with reporters shortly before midnight local time.

There was no word on casualties for either side.

The spokesman, Capt. David Romley, did not say who manned the vehicles, but the desert airstrip the Marines seized Sunday night is in the region of Kandahar, the last major stronghold held by the Taliban.

Spotted by aircraft

Romley would not say if the armored column was heading toward the base or give any details about where it was attacked, except to say it was "in the vicinity of this base." He said the vehicles had been spotted by U.S. aircraft.

Romley said the column included tanks and BMPs, which are armored vehicles capable of carrying a dozen soldiers each. When the Soviet army retreated from Afghan-istan in 1989 after a decade-long war, it left its client regime with dozens of tanks and BMPs that later were captured by a coalition of local militias and warlords.

At the base, helicopters and transport planes ferried in troops and equipment late into the night, and the Pentagon said it would take at least another day to reach the full complement of about 1,000 Marines. The aircraft were operating off the USS Peleliu hundreds of miles away in the northern Arabian Sea and from unidentified bases on the coast.

Working under a bright moon in the chill night air, Marines hurried to set up shop and fortify the airstrip for a new phase of the U.S. war on terrorism. Until now, the U.S. role in the war had been mostly in the air.

Carried by CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, the first contingent of Marines touched down at the desolate airstrip at 9 p.m. local time Sunday and met no resistance, according to their reports.

'Without a hitch'

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

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declined to talk about what kinds of operations might be staged from the base. He suggested only that it would ratchet up the pressure on the leaders of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network by further hindering their movements in the Kandahar area.

Rumsfeld also said that "hundreds, not thousands" of Marines would man the "forward operating base," but not necessarily as the vanguard of a substantially larger American ground force.

Earlier, President Bush said the Marines would assist in hunting down terrorists linked to the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The Associated Press was allowed to accompany the Marines on condition its reports not reveal the base's exact location or any future mission plans.

The base is isolated, with no signs of towns in the distance across the flat desert. The only lights for miles around were the runway lights installed by the Marines and lights burning inside the airstrip's buildings.

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