Marines hunt for gunmen who attacked base at Kandahar

Friday, January 11, 2002

Associated Press WriterKANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) -- U.S. Marines hunted Friday for gunmen who attacked their airport base in Kandahar during the first high-security flight of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners to a U.S. base in Cuba, where they will be questioned and possibly tried.

The attack triggered a brief but intense gunbattle, the first on the base since the Marines dug in a month ago.

There were differing accounts on whether the attackers were directly targeting the C-17 transport plane, which took off from the base Thursday with 20 chained and hooded prisoners on board, headed for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Marines who were on the front lines during the firefight said the gunmen fired at the plane as it took off. Officers at the base, however, said the attack was unconnected to the transfer. Commander Dan Keesee at U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., said the exchange of gunfire occurred 15 minutes after the plane took off.

In Pakistan, U.S. Marines and Pakistani troops scoured a remote mountainsides near the Afghan border for the remains of seven Marines killed when their KC-130 tanker plane crashed Wednesday night. A local official said some body parts had been recovered.

South of Kandahar, U.S. forces and Afghan fighters were working to disarm residents in the Afghan town of Spinboldak, witnesses told The Associated Press.

Also Friday, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press agency reported that U.S. planes bombed the Zhawar area in Afghanistan's Khost province, targeting three camps believed to be used by al-Qaida.

The firefight at Kandahar airport illustrated how the area around the city -- the birthplace of the overthrown Taliban regime -- remains insecure.

The Marines estimated that eight to 14 people armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles attacked from three different positions, getting to about 400 yards from the outer defensive perimeter of the sprawling air base.

Using ravines, ditches and abandoned mud houses as cover, the attackers sent aloft an illumination flare as the C-17 was taking off, then opened up with gunfire. Intermittent shooting continued for about 40 minutes.

The Marines responded with M-16 assault rifles, grenade launchers and cannons, and sent up Cobra attack helicopters to seek the attackers. Eventually, a light armored vehicle went out to an abandoned mud house where some fire came from. No one was found.

"We used all the assets we have," Capt. Dan Greenwood, the operations officer who directed the Marine response, told reporters. "It was a probe, based on three fronts. They were testing our defenses, and they'll think twice about hitting us again."

There were no U.S. casualties. Patrols went out after sunrise, but found no bodies. A pair of rocket-propelled grenades were discovered in an abandoned mud house, perched on a moonscape of ravines and homes pounded to rubble after years of warfare.

After the Taliban abandoned Kandahar in early December, many of the ousted militia's fighters disappeared into Afghanistan's rugged terrain or have blended into civilian populations.

Marine spokesman 1st Lt. James Jarvis said security procedures at the base at Kandahar's airport were being reviewed, but acknowledged the area is hard to defend. "The airport takes up a lot of ground."

Jarvis and Greenwood said that they did not believe the gun attack was directly related to the prisoner flight.

"We kept the movement of the detainees a closely held secret, and we believe the two are completely isolated incidents," Jarvis said. "The longer we're here, the more enemy forces are going to take their chances."

But some soldiers who had manned the perimeter said that the gunmen were targeting the plane. They said they saw three men pop up from a mud house and three more from behind a well and fire at the aircraft.

"The C-17 was taking off, and right then they opened fire," said Lance Cpl. William Bee, 19, of Wooster, Ohio.

"They fired directly at the C-17," said Gunnery Sgt. Huchi Huchi of Detroit.

The C-17 was carrying 20 prisoners of "various nationalities" to Guantanamo, Jarvis said, without giving their identities or importance. U.S. authorities plan to ship an undetermined number of prisoners from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network and its Taliban allies to a more secure facility at Guantanamo.

The Kandahar base's mud-walled detention center has 361 prisoners, including 30 new arrivals who came after Thursday night's flight to Cuba.

Authorities took no chances of a prisoner uprising. Jarvis said that the prisoners were chained and hooded and brought 10 at a time under heavy guard by soldiers and police dogs to the aircraft.

In the capital, Kabul, the first German and Dutch troops arrived Friday to prepare the ground for the full force of 1,200 troops from those nations joining a British-led peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan.

British peacekeeping forces and newly deputized Afghan police formally launched joint patrols of the capital Thursday in an effort to restore security and civilians' trust. The new Afghan government has ordered men with guns off the city streets. Fewer have been seen.

Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat who heads the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Kabul on Friday and said that the government was "exceeding expectations" in extending its authority, but predicted "you're going to see some glitches between here and there."

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