New Base Will Aid Search for Enemy at Kandahar

Times Staff Writer

To help the teams searching for Al Qaeda leaders, the Marines on Monday set up a staging area near the terrorists' former stronghold of Kandahar.

In a classic Marine maneuver, a dozen helicopters, flying low and fast, took weaponry, vehicles and other supplies to a rocky desert site considerably closer to Kandahar than the outpost known as Camp Rhino, about 70 miles south of the city.

The closer site will make it easier to resupply the roving "hunter-killer" teams with water, food and ammunition. The number of Marines searching for Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders fleeing Kandahar was sharply increased.

"It feels very good to be here," said Maj. Tom Impellitteri, 32, of Pennsylvania, who was among the Marines in the helicopter force.

The stepped-up hunt was popular at Camp Rhino, where each night brings new concerns about attacks by fighters from the hard-line Taliban and Osama bin Laden's terrorist network.

"We're tired of playing defense--we'd rather go on the attack," said Jose Lopez, 20, of the San Fernando Valley, a Navy corpsman assigned to a Marine infantry unit.

"Momentum is important in war," said a Marine helicopter pilot from San Diego. "You've got to keep moving ahead and not sit back and talk about your successes. Marines are happiest when they're moving. And fighting."

A Marine team last week confronted vehicles that were being driven toward them at high speed by suspected Taliban fighters. Three vehicles were destroyed and seven fighters killed.

The "hunter-killer" teams--squads of Marines in fast-attack Humvees armed with missiles and 50-caliber machine guns--are also searching for Al Qaeda fighters along roads and pathways and in villages around Kandahar.

As the Marines tighten the noose to keep Al Qaeda leaders from escaping into the mountains, thoughts of the Sept. 11 attacks are ever present.

As one "hunter-killer" team rolled through a village, a Marine affixed a New York Fire Department bumper sticker to a wooden bridge.

And some Marines at Camp Rhino have dubbed the new staging area "the Pentagon," a wry reference to the fact that a portion of the U.S. military headquarters' building was destroyed in the attacks.

Restlessness is inherent in the Marine Corps culture, and much of the talk at this desert compound, which the Marines seized Nov. 26 and later dubbed Camp Rhino, has focused on when the troops would be "going north"--toward Kandahar--in greater numbers.

The new staging area is meant as a temporary venue, possibly used just a few days.

Camp Rhino, though dusty, barren and without running water, will remain as the Marine base, with vehicle repair troops, command structure and a field hospital.

The Marines' goal is to arrest Al Qaeda leaders and kill or capture any Taliban soldiers who refuse to lay down their weapons.

It is unclear whether the Marines will be asked to provide stability for Kandahar, where rival factions have been vying for control since the Taliban was routed.

Marines from a Force Reconnaissance unit at Camp Pendleton had scouted the area around Kandahar for days and determined that it was free of enemy influence.

Still, troops have began digging "fighting holes"--the Marine equivalent of foxholes--to provide nighttime protection for the new staging area.

"It's a whole different world out here," said Lance Cpl. Anthony Montemayor, 21, of Madera in California's Central Valley. "We're a long, long way from home."

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