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U.S. Marines patrol deserts around base in Afghanistan
SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN -- An American flag flew over an Afghan airstrip Tuesday as more and more U.S. Marines landed in their desert foothold near the Taliban's last bastion.
With the size of the force building, the Marines spent much of Tuesday securing their base. Humvees loaded with anti-tank weapons and heavy machine guns rolled out on patrol. In the sands and dunes around the compound, Marines could be seen in the distance at their outposts.
In Tampa, Fla., the commander of the U.S. war effort, Gen. Tommy Franks, said that by the time the deployment is complete, between 800 and 1,100 Marines will be at the base, located 70-80 miles from Kandahar, the last city held by the Taliban.
The military would not say Tuesday how many troops had been brought in so far from six ships in the northern Arabian Sea and elsewhere to the desert base, which was once a wealthy Arab's landing strip for hunting excursions.
Officials in Washington said the Marines, who began arriving Sunday, would help prevent the escape of Afghanistan's Taliban militia and members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network holed up in Kandahar, to the east.
The officials in Washington added the Marines also will make quick strikes when they can and help identify targets for U.S. bombing.
Franks said the "forward operating base" was intended "to give us a capability to be an awfully lot closer to the core objectives we seek" -- destruction of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Among its missions, he said, would be interdiction of roads to search for fleeing Taliban.
While the troops' presence "does in fact provide pressure" against Kandahar, they were not deployed for an assault on the city, Franks said. The Marines could be stationed at the base for more than 30 days, he said.
On Tuesday, Marines were setting up command centers, accommodation and other facilities at the base. Buildings were marked "medical" or "command."
The small airport includes a packed sand landing strip and a complex of modern, off-white concrete buildings. The Marines raised an America flag at the center of the compound.
Helicopters and airplanes carrying troops and equipment roared in around the clock. During nighttime landings overnight, the tips of their propellors or rotors glowed brightly as they hit sand particles. In the daytime, landing or departing helicopters disappeared in clouds of sand.
Capt. Stewart Upton, public affairs officer for the Marine task force in Afghanistan, stressed Tuesday that the mission is not to invade or occupy.
"We are here to rid the people of Afghanistan of the terrorists and to provide them with the peaceful way of life," he said.
Upton added that if bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, was spotted "of course we would take him."
Capt. John Barranco, a 30-year-old helicopter pilot from Boston who was part of the task force, said that after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States, he was proud to be part of the mission.
"A family friend was in the World Trade Center, and the last I heard, when I was able to reach home, was still in critical condition. I feel I have a personal stake in this. I feel all Americans have a personal stake in this."
The Marines saw action almost immediately. Marine Cobra helicopters followed up an airstrike by fighter jets against what appeared to be a reconnaissance column, possibly of the Taliban, late Monday.
The military said the field was taken with no resistance and military footage of that mission showed no shots being fired. Many of the buildings, though, were pockmarked with bullet holes, and one building outside the main compound appeared to have been hit by mortars and bullets before Sunday's Marine landing.
The Associated Press was allowed to deploy with the troops on the condition that it did not reveal classified information, troop strengths, mission plans and other secret information.
Task Force 58 was made up of troops from the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units -- with a normal combined strength of more than 4,000 Marines -- plus other troops for the Afghan deployment, known as Operation Swift Freedom.