A large contingent of British combat troops that started operating in Afghanistan today gave details of what they have been doing. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports.
Bagram, 17 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The first of a group of elite British troops sent to reinforce U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan has revealed they secretly began operations on 13 April. British Royal Marine spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paul Harradine told journalists today at the marine base at Bagram what the troops have been doing.
He said several hundred marines from the 45th Commando Group have been operating at altitudes of around 3,500 meters in the same rugged, snow-covered mountainous area that had seen heavy fighting in March, when U.S.-led forces mounted an offensive -- code-named Operation Anaconda -- against Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
It is in the Shah-i-Kot area south of the Afghan capital, Kabul, and not far from the Pakistani border. Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters are believed to be crossing into Pakistan, regrouping and returning for hit-and-run operations in Afghanistan.
"The Pakistani border is very close [and] you can't stop them coming back. But what you can do is every now and then revisit these sites and put a presence on the ground. The only way to stop it completely is to swamp it with troops, and clearly we haven't got enough [resources] to do that," Harradine said.
Harradine said that despite previous searches of the area by U.S. troops, it was still honeycombed with caves, bunkers and hideouts full of weapons, ammunition, and important documents belonging to the Islamic fundamentalist fighters. He explained that the British mission had two parts.
"The first part was to clear this area of land. The second part was to use the operation to integrate with coalition forces and with ourselves to make sure we're fully operationally ready," Harradine said.
British special forces and other specialist troops have operated in Afghanistan alongside the Americans since last October. But this operation is the first by elements of the 1,700 marines sent by Britain in response to a U.S. request for men trained to fight at high altitudes and in cold conditions.
Asked whether there was evidence to suggest that Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters had been back to the area since Operation Anaconda, Harradine said: "Yes there is post-Anaconda, there is. And some of the bits and pieces they found were booby-trapped, which has obviously happened since then, although they didn't see any AQ [Al-Qaeda] or Taliban as yet. So there is evidence people have been back there since [Operation Anaconda], yes."
He said at least eight dead bodies of Al-Qaeda fighters had been found and the carcasses of dead animals had been booby-trapped with trip wires attached to mines and other explosive devices.
U.S. Army spokesman Major Bryan Hilferty said the area where the British are operating is so rugged that there are many more potential hiding places to be checked. "It is such a large area and so rough that you really can't clear it all perfectly and it's perfect for the marines, who are doing a great job [of] finishing clearing," Hilferty said.
Harradine said there was evidence that Al-Qaeda forces are returning to the area to reoccupy it. New supplies, including weapons and ammunition, had been found. The current British mission is to clear the area of hostile forces again but the marines had not seen any enemy fighters.
"There are a lot of dead bodies lying around up there still and they found some of them with maps and documents on them, which have been recovered, and they will be [sent] for analysis back here for intelligence purposes. They found caves with a lot of ammunition inside, which have been photographed, logged, and evidence was taken. They found radios which, again, will be recovered back here for intelligence purposes. They haven't as yet had any contact with the enemy, although they have registered [aimed] their weapons, indirect fire weapons, mortar and artillery, onto likely enemy positions, i.e. caves and caches [of ammunition] they have found, so they can destroy them," Harradine said.
He said several caves that had been searched were destroyed by aiming artillery fire at them or blowing them up with explosives. Many of the commandos are operating at altitudes of around 3,500 meters in snow-covered mountains and carrying backpacks weighing about 45 kilograms.
Harradine said they quickly got used to the difficult conditions. "They're fine, they've adapted very well to it. They are very fit and they spend a lot of time in the mountains. But what you need to do is take things very slowly. You can't sprint to the top of a mountain, and it did take them by surprise initially, but now they're up and down regularly."
The British troops were brought to the area of operations by U.S. and British transport airplanes and helicopters. They rely on American planes to support them if they come under attack. Harradine said that, so far, they had not come under attack, although some marines operating what he called the gunline -- a line of big-gun positions -- thought they were being attacked this morning.
"The gunline reported that they had come under fire and they started to call in the American fixed-wing aircraft [planes]. It then became apparent a sheep had set off an anti-personnel mine in their vicinity, which just goes to show how dangerous the ground is," Harradine said.
Harradine would not say when the operation will end. Although it is not an exercise and is being carried out in a dangerous area, its main aim is to ensure that the British can operate in those conditions and can coordinate with other coalition forces, principally the Americans. More aggressive operations are then expected to follow with attacks launched against Al-Qaeda positions.