Troops Seize Airstrip NearTaliban Base : U.S. Marines Land in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON: Hundreds of U.S. Marines consolidated a bridgehead Monday at an airfield in southern Afghanistan, poised to dramatically increase pressure on the Taliban in their final redoubt of Kandahar and to intensify the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Transport helicopters based on ships in the Arabian Sea on Sunday carried the first wave of troops, trained in both conventional combat and specialized operations, onto a desert airstrip southwest of Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual home and power base.

"We're smoking them out, they're running and now we're going to bring them to justice," President George W. Bush said Monday after the first major seizure of Afghan territory by American ground forces.

The first group of Marines were there for the sole purpose of "establishing and holding a forward operating base," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He implied that others would be sent for humanitarian missions and special operations or other fighting roles.

The Marines' deployment had "gone well so far," said General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As C-130 transport aircraft brought in reinforcements, U.S. gunships and attack jets continued to hit targets in Kandahar, and anti-Taliban tribal fighters said they were within 8 kilometers (5 miles) of the city.

"It is a classic airfield seizure," a Pentagon official said, adding that the deployment should be concluded by Tuesday. The Dolangi airstrip is thought to have been controlled until last month by Mr. bin Laden.

The infusion of Marines, the largest U.S. force to arrive in the country, came as the Northern Alliance secured control of Kunduz, the Taliban's last northern redoubt. The Associated Press said the victorious soldiers had beaten captured Taliban fighters in the streets and shot wounded prisoners in the town's marketplace. (Page 4)

Near Mazar-i-Sharif, fighting went on for a second day inside an anti-Taliban fortress as hundreds of alliance troops, and some U.S. soldiers, rushed into the mud-walled complex, where dozens of rebellious captives loyal to Mr. bin Laden were said to be fighting to the death.

Fears that foreign pro-Taliban fighters in Kunduz might not give up had risen sharply after a pitched battle broke out Sunday between non-Afghan prisoners using smuggled weapons, and their Northern Alliance captors in the fortress.

Those developments came as representatives of four Afghan groups, but not the Taliban, assembled in Bonn for UN-sponsored talks on their country's future, and as international efforts progressed to address the grave humanitarian needs of the Afghan people. (Page 4)

Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Northern Alliance leader and former Afghan president, said there would be no swift agreement but also said he was open to a role for moderate Taliban officials in a new administration.

The deployment of Marines raises the risk of substantial loss of American lives, and Mr. Bush sought Monday to prepare Americans for casualties.

"No president or commander-in-chief hopes anybody loses life in the theater, but it's going to happen," he told reporters at a White House event to welcome back two American aid workers who had been held by the Taliban. "America must be prepared for loss of life."

Victoria Clarke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said earlier Monday that five U.S. military men had been injured in a "friendly fire" incident near Mazar-i-Sharif when a U.S. JDAM smart bomb missed its target. None of the injuries were life-threatening, she said. Three of the injured were removed to Uzbekistan and the other two remained in Afghanistan.

Mr. Rumsfeld would not comment on reports of one or two U.S. deaths, possibly of CIA agents, during the compound siege. "We will not know the answers" until siege ends, he said.

The Pentagon has not laid out the precise purpose of the operation near Kandahar, but with control of the airstrip, the Marines are in position either to increase pressure on Kandahar or to mount sustained search-and-destroy missions against Qaida members in the area.

The deployment signaled growing confidence about the situation on the ground, although it might also reflect the absence of the sort of relatively well-coordinated proxy force in the south as the Northern Alliance represented in the north. Southern tribal leaders have made conflicting claims, and some appear too close to the Taliban for U.S. comfort.

Residents in Kandahar were anxious Monday, Reuters reported, fearful that several thousand Taliban fighters and their foreign supporters might make a bloody stand. The Taliban reportedly have scores of tanks and heavy artillery in the area, which is heavily mined.

Mr. Rumsfeld had said U.S. ground forces would be needed to "crawl around on the ground and find people," a clear reference to Mr. bin Laden, whose Qaida network is blamed for the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the United States that killed thousands.

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