The sounds of jet fighter planes screeching overhead and the resounding thud of bombs crashing to the ground echo continually through this rebel-held garrison in eastern Afghanistan.
The guerrillas dive for cover, but each time the blasts claim more casualties from among the 500 or so fighters occupying the base.
Government forces are also pounding the camp with rockets fired from Jalalabad, 8 miles away, and occasionally with powerful Scud missiles from Kabul, about 75 miles away.
The rebels respond with artillery. Sophisticated U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles down one or two of the scores of Soviet-made MIG fighters that daily attack the guerrilla positions around Jalalabad.
The Afghan government is using its air force against the moujahedeen rebels trying to capture Jalalabad more effectively than it has in the past, and Kabul’s air power appears to be a more serious threat to the guerrillas than they had anticipated.
Government jets dropping cluster bombs have heavily bombed guerrilla positions east of Jalalabad since the U.S.-armed guerrillas launched a major offensive to seize the city nearly two weeks ago.
During one recent raid, an Afghan fighter jet circled once and then targeted guerrilla positions. Two bombs fell. Seconds before hitting the ground, the bomb canisters opened, scattering a 1685027429ng through the air.
The threat from the air is now the guerrillas’ biggest fear.
Even the presence of “Stinger-wallahs,” guerrillas who operate Stinger ground-to-air missiles that proved effective in the past against Soviet aircraft, is not enough. By flying high and scattering flares to deceive the heat-seeking missiles, the Afghan jets become difficult targets.
The guerrilla offensive made swift progress shortly after it began, moving to within 1 1/4miles of Jalalabad. But since then it has been slowed by stiff resistance from government troops. The guerrillas are still trying to dislodge Afghan army and militia troops from the airport, nearly 4 miles from the city.
At the airport, about 4 miles from Samarkhel, troops and guerrillas face each other a few hundred yards apart across a heavily mined no-man’s land. Rebels in the Pakistan frontier city of Peshawar said that fighting at the airport Saturday left 20 rebels dead and that the government sent reinforcements.
Hospital and rebel sources in Peshawar said Saturday that more than 150 guerrillas have died and 564 have been wounded since the drive to take Jalalabad began March 6.
“We are fighting a well-entrenched enemy,” said Lal Mohammed, a 35-year-old rebel commander at Samarkhel. “We are suffering heavy casualties here at the rear from bombs and artillery.”
But, he added, “We were prepared for this. We can continue even for another two months.”
Jalalabad would be the first major city to fall to the guerrillas in the 10-year-old civil war. Its capture is seen as crucial to rebel hopes of eventually taking Kabul, 75 miles to the west.
The Pakistan-based resistance, which also hopes to establish its interim government in Jalalabad, believes the city’s fall would prompt defections among frightened government troops.
The Samarkhel garrison, which was intended to protect the city, was taken in three hours March 10. It is now the main guerrilla base for the operation against Jalalabad.