Royal Marines join search for fugitives

Wednesday, April 17, 2002

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Britain's Royal Marines joined the search for Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives in eastern Afghanistan, officials announced Tuesday, marking the combat debut for an elite force trained to operate in small units in mountains that rise above 10,000 feet.

In Kabul, meanwhile, interim leader Hamid Karzai arrived in Rome to accompany former king Mohammad Zaher Shah -- widely seen as a unifying figure -- back to Afghanistan after 29 years in exile.

The British troops join American and Afghan forces who have already been searching for Taliban and al-Qaida remnants in the mountains near the border with Pakistan in what the U.S. military calls Operation Mountain Lion.

British spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Harradine gave few details, saying only that Britain's Operation Ptarmigan -- named after a Scottish bird that's good at camouflage -- began several days ago in an area "that was formerly known as an al-Qaida and Taliban base."

"They're going to sweep through, destroy any al-Qaida and Taliban that are there and then deny the group control of that area," he said at the allied base here.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Bryan Hilferty would not say how many American troops were in the area following up on last month's Operation Anaconda -- a 12-day assault on Taliban and al-Qaida forces in the eastern Shah-e-Kot mountains.

Harradine refused to say whether there had been any clashes so far but said the coalition had suffered no casualties.

In Kandahar, a U.S. Army spokesman, Maj. Ignacio Perez, said all U.S. troops had been accounted for following the accidental explosion that killed four U.S. soldiers and wounded one at a demolition range next to the former residence of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Troops were handling large caliber rockets which had been confiscated from former Taliban ammunition dumps when the accident occurred at midday Monday. The injured soldier was flown to the U.S. military base at Kandahar airport, where officials said his injuries were not life-threatening.

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