PAKTIA PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- In a blast heard and seen for miles, coalition forces blew up four caves Friday packed with tens of thousands of rockets, shells and grenades that once belonged to the Taliban -- and were apparently still being used.
"There's no way they'll be able to go in there and use those caves now," said Sgt. Iain Murison from Britain's 59 Commando as a huge, tan dust cloud spread across the desolate hills and valleys of southeastern Afghanistan.
About 220 pounds of plastic explosives, fortified with anti-tank mines, were set off by remote control after people were evacuated from within a mile of the caves.
Ordnance inside the manmade caves continued to explode for hours; at least three rockets shot out and went whizzing across the sky.
British forces discovered the cache earlier this week. The caves are 6 to 9 feet high and about 100 to 150 feet deep. Near Soram, south of Gardez, they were hacked out years ago by Muslim fighters and then taken over by the Taliban. Marks from pickaxes were still visible on walls.
The caves were sealed shut with metal doors, but at least one was left open -- apparently by guards hired by local warlords who fled when the British troops approached, said Lt. Col. Tim Chicken, commander of the 45 Commando.
"You can see things have been moved around recently, but we don't know by whom," he said. "Dust has been disturbed and stuff's been dragged outside."
Most of the materiel was Chinese or Russian-made, Murison said. He estimated the total at more than 20 truckloads, including 30,000 to 40,000 rockets, mortar shells and projectiles.
All of it was destroyed, along with the four caves.
No enemy contact
The find came as part of Operation Snipe, a 1,000-man, British-led mission in the mountains of Paktia and Paktika provinces. So far, the troops haven't had any enemy contact.
Also Friday, Afghan officials delayed the release of hundreds of Pakistani prisoners amid worries about attacks on them as they made their way home.
Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the deputy defense minister who controls the northern prison of Shibergan, had said he would release up to 400 Pakistani prisoners this week.
But he put it off for a second day while he met with a "foreign representative" to discuss the safety of the prisoners once they are released, according to an officer who answered the phone at Dostum's base.