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Afghanistan: British Marines Begin Combat Operations

British Marines sent to Afghanistan earlier this month to reinforce U.S.-led coalition forces battling Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters said today they have gone into action. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports from the Marines' main base at Bagram, outside Kabul, where he spoke to an intelligence officer who explains what the British mission entails.

Bagram, Afghanistan; 16 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- British troops have started combat operations against the remnants of Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. A British spokesman says hundreds of elite Royal Marines from the 45 Commando Group went into action last weekend in snow-covered mountains in eastern Afghanistan, the same area where U.S.-led coalition forces fought a prolonged battle against Al-Qaeda fighters last month.

The Marines were flown to the area several days ago by massive U.S. twin-rotor Chinook helicopters from the base at Bagram, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, which they share with other coalition forces.

Marines spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Paul Harradine said the British troops are searching a mountain valley where Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces are thought to be operating. They will also search caves and bunkers in the mountains and collect documents or information that could provide clues about past or future Al-Qaeda operations. He said the hideouts will be destroyed, along with any weapons, ammunition or other supplies found inside.

Harradine said the commandos were "deployed on the ground several days ago in this operation, which is code-named Operation Ptarmigan." He refused to say how many men are involved or if there has been any fighting with Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters.

Harradine said the men are operating at an altitude of around 3,000 meters. He said: "They are above the snow line, some of them. It is very rugged, very windy, snowing at night. Temperatures are below freezing and very rough underfoot."

Hundreds of British Special Forces troops and men from other elite or specialist forces have been operating beside U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan since last October, when operations began to destroy the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, which has been blamed for the terrorist attacks of 11 September, and the extremist Islamic Taliban regime that was its patron.

But last month, Britain said it would deploy an additional 1,700-strong force of Marine commandos. Not all have arrived in Afghanistan yet, but their commander, Brigadier Roger Lane, said they will all be ready for action by the end of the month. The U.S. requested British commandos because they are trained to fight in just the sort of rugged, high-altitude, sub-zero conditions presented by the terrain of eastern Afghanistan.

The Marines will operate under the overall command of U.S. General Tommy Franks, but Harradine said British officers will share the planning of all operations.

"What we have here is Brigadier Roger Lane and his brigade staff, and they are here and they are deeply embedded [in very close contact] with the American division in the planning phases for what might come up. So there will be no veto decision to be made because that's why they're here -- to get the planning in the bag initially so the mission that comes out of it will be the right mission for us," Harradine said.

A coalition military intelligence officer at Bagram, speaking on condition of anonymity, said most Taliban fighters, who are Afghans, have probably blended into the general population and may have abandoned the idea of continuing resistance. But he said it has been more difficult for Al-Qaeda fighters, most of them Arabs, to leave the region.

He said around 1,000 are thought to remain in Afghanistan, while others are believed to be hiding across the border in Pakistan and regrouping for guerrilla raids.

The intelligence officer said the British Marines are eager to meet Al-Qaeda forces in battle but admits this is unlikely. He said Al-Qaeda forces have probably split into smaller groups in an effort to increase their mobility. Instead, he said the British Marines will try to trap any smaller groups of the enemy and position themselves to intercept Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighters trying to flee into Pakistan.

This is the first time British Marines have been deployed abroad for combat since the 1982 war between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands. But most British soldiers have combat-zone experience from serving tours of duty in Northern Ireland. British forces also fought in Iraq in 1991 as part of the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein, and they have served in peacekeeping missions throughout the world. Some 1,500 British soldiers lead the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul.

British soldiers, though, have fought many times before in Afghanistan during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when Afghanistan was the most troublesome neighbor of the British Indian Empire. In 1842, the British suffered their worst-ever defeat at the hands of Afghan forces, who wiped out an entire force of 16,000 troops -- except for one man who, it is said, was allowed to live to tell the tale.

Harradine does not think the British Marines are in danger of suffering the same fate. "Clearly, everybody knows there is a long and steep history of warfare in Afghanistan. In fact, the Afghan people have lived with it for hundreds of years. But what we bring to the party is something completely different. We have massive strategic lift [helicopters and transport aircraft]. We have ships. We have technology that was never there in the past," Harradine said.

Originally, the British government announced it was deploying the Marines for three months only. But it now says they will remain as long as it takes to complete the mission of destroying Al-Qaeda as a significant force.