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Hundreds of Marines Land Near Kandahar; Kunduz Falls

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A wave of U.S. Marines landed Sunday in the Taliban’s southern stronghold of Kandahar, the first step in a buildup of forces that may soon more than double the number of American ground troops in Afghanistan.

Soon after nightfall, about 200 to 300 Marines were flown by helicopter from ships in the northern Arabian Sea to an airfield southwest of Kandahar, said a senior defense official who asked to remain unidentified. Over the next several days, hundreds more will be carried to the airfield by C-130 aircraft to reinforce the unit until it numbers more than 1,000, the official said.

The official declined to comment specifically on the Marines’ job, saying only that they are there “in support of the overall mission.”

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But the Marine force in the area will include troops trained in counter-terrorism who are qualified to help press the battle against the retreating Taliban, and to take part in the search for leaders of the Taliban and for Osama bin Laden.

In other developments Sunday:

* U.S. forces on the ground and in the air helped crush an outbreak of violence by about 300 non-Afghan Taliban fighters imprisoned at a fort near Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said. Hundreds of prisoners were reported killed, and there was word that a CIA operative on the ground was wounded.

* Northern Alliance forces reported that they took control of the strategic northern city of Kunduz without a major battle after hundreds of Taliban surrendered or fled. Several thousand jubilant alliance fighters joined the march into the city as night fell.

* Pushtun forces said they ambushed a group of Taliban militiamen and seized control of an eight-mile section of the major road connecting Kandahar to the southeast borderlands.

The arrival of the Marines in Kandahar marks an evolution in a war that began entirely as an air campaign and has only gradually been broadened with ground forces.

American ground forces in Afghanistan have so far consisted of hundreds of U.S. Special Forces troops. They have helped coordinate airstrikes, supplied opposition forces and begun the search for the leaders of the Taliban and of Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist network. At times, they have engaged in ground combat.

But these Special Forces, while versatile, are light units; the Marines will add firepower and mobility to the ground effort against the Taliban. Although the senior defense official offered no details of the equipment they will use, it will presumably include attack helicopters, fighter aircraft and armored personnel carriers.

Dr. Khayal Mohammed, who operates a clinic for refugees in the Pakistani border town of Chaman, said people arriving early this morning from Kandahar reported seeing tanks and soldiers at that city’s airport.

By landing at Kandahar, the Marines, who are part of the 15th and 26th Marine expeditionary units, will be close to the last remaining stronghold of Taliban forces, and the political center where the Taliban fighters may make their last stand.

The Marine units that have been deployed in the Arabian Sea are based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

In a briefing last week, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz pointed out that the addition of Marines would add significantly to the U.S. forces’ capability in the region.

He noted that they were “special operations-capable” units. He said their presence would allow the U.S. forces to cover more area in the country and make possible “closing with and killing the enemy.”

The Marines have also been trained in urban warfare, and could effectively take on the risky job of searching city neighborhoods if Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders hide in that setting, officials have pointed out.

While the Marines’ presence will strengthen the U.S. military’s hand, it will also entail risks. Many Taliban fighters remain in pockets throughout the region, and they have vowed to inflict casualties.

Arms Said to Have Been Smuggled to Prisoners

Sunday’s prison riot at a fortress in Qala-i-Jangy, 10 miles west of Mazar-i-Sharif, involved Pakistani, Arab and Chechen fighters who had surrendered following a two-week siege of Kunduz, according to officials in Washington and Afghanistan.

The prisoners used smuggled weapons against their Northern Alliance captors, who fought back with the assistance of U.S. warplanes and Special Forces troops, according to accounts from the scene.

If the death toll is correct, analysts said, the incident could complicate American efforts to maintain a delicate alliance with Pakistan against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Accounts from the scene portrayed a bloody revolt in which the prisoners battled their captors for more than four hours with smuggled Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns and grenades, and as many as 40 U.S. Special Forces troops swooped in to take control.

Footage from a German television crew that was inside the compound showed guards atop walls firing down into crowds of prisoners. The film shot by the ARD network showed a member of the U.S. Special Forces on a telephone calling in airstrikes.

“There’s hundreds dead here at least,” the Special Forces soldier could be overheard saying.

But Pentagon officials suggested that the outbreak ended quickly with a decisive win by the Northern Alliance. “The revolt is clearly over, and Northern Alliance troops are in control of the facility,” said Army Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking.

Northern Alliance Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, whose forces were holding the prisoners, surrounded the fort with 500 of his troops and requested U.S. airstrikes, said another Pentagon official, Air Force Lt. Col. Ken McClellan, who refused to say how many or what type of U.S. aircraft were involved in the attacks.

A senior Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity acknowledged that the air attacks were coordinated by U.S. military personnel on the ground. This official would not say how many U.S. soldiers were involved, but suggested that the number was small. The official said that estimates of Taliban casualties appeared substantially exaggerated.

Pentagon officials also denied media reports that the U.S. suffered its first casualties of the Afghan operation during the clash.

“We can tell you that there have been no confirmed U.S. service members killed there,” said U.S. Central Command spokesman Army Sgt. Maj. Rich Czizik. The senior Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that no Americans had died during the clash but added that one CIA man was believed to be injured.

The U.S. has not lost a single service member to enemy action in seven weeks of conflict.

Pakistan’s leaders have begged for American help to avoid the slaughter of non-Afghan Taliban fighters captured by the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance. They have acknowledged that many are Pakistanis and have warned that their deaths could produce civil upheaval in Pakistan.

Gen. Daoud Khan, a Northern Alliance commander, said three planeloads of Taliban fighters had left Kunduz for Pakistan. But reports that the Pakistani government was behind any such airlift were denied by U.S. officials and a spokesman for the alliance.

The U.S. and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance have said they would treat foreign fighters more severely than their Afghan counterparts, most of whom are thought willing to side with whoever has power in Afghanistan. But there have been widespread worries that their imprisonment or killing could stir political unrest in the region and spark new terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Northern Alliance Made a Deal on City’s Fate

The Northern Alliance’s march into Kunduz on Sunday came after hundreds of Taliban soldiers turned themselves in or fled west toward the town of Chardara. Alliance generals had previously negotiated a deal to carve up control of the city.

Jubilant alliance soldiers shouted, “We’re going to take Kunduz!” as a column of tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks, many piled high with fighters, pushed into the deserted village of Khanabad, east of Kunduz, just before sunset. Several fighters armed with Kalashnikovs or grenade launchers galloped forward on horseback while hundreds marched in on foot.

A commander, Col. Munir, 44, barked instructions into a radio: “Move, move! Go forward!”

After nightfall, Gen. Khan, the Northern Alliance commander at Taloqan, announced that Kunduz was under alliance control. However, doubts later emerged as to whether his forces had complete control of the city.

Sunday’s advance ended a two-week deadlock that followed the Northern Alliance’s seizure of Taloqan. After that town fell, the alliance moved confidently west toward Khanabad expecting a surrender but ran into a wall of fierce resistance.

Gen. Shohijahan Nasrullah, Khan’s deputy, said there had been very little opposition from the Taliban on Sunday. No one is sure how many foreign fighters remain, or whether the Northern Alliance will run into pockets of resistance from them.

Khan said that the Afghan Taliban fighters who surrendered were being sent home to resume civilian lives and that foreign fighters were to be put on trial.

Kunduz, the last northern city in Taliban hands, had become an important symbol in the war to dislodge the Taliban in Afghanistan. With the Northern Alliance seizure of that city, only Kandahar remains under Taliban control.

The Pushtun fighters battling the Taliban around the militants’ southern stronghold Sunday are loyal to southern tribal chief Hamid Karzai and prominent Soviet-era resistance commander Gul Agha Shirzai. About 2,000 men reportedly ambushed a group of Taliban militiamen early in the day, killing four and capturing an undetermined number.

“They tried to disguise themselves as normal travelers and came in minibuses and small taxis, but our forces were waiting,” Karzai’s brother, Ahmed, said from the family compound in Quetta, Pakistan. The ambush occurred near a small mountain range about 20 miles south of Kandahar.

“We have completely cut [Taliban control] of the road,” he said. “It is under our control.”

The Pushtun forces reportedly continued their fight north toward the Kandahar airport, apparently in preparation for the Marines’ arrival.

American Special Forces also have struck the area surrounding Kandahar, destroying several trucks and oil tankers in an apparent effort to blockade the city. Fears are mounting that oil and food will be choked off, according to travelers who arrived in Quetta. Many civilians have fled Kandahar, leaving only the Taliban and those who are too poor to depart.

On Sunday, there were also claims that several top-level Taliban figures, including the minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, Maulvi Torabi, had contacted Pushtun tribal leaders seeking to negotiate the defection of themselves or forces under their command. The claim could not be corroborated independently.

With the Taliban grip on power gradually loosening, stepped-up preparations for a new era in Afghanistan were also evident in Quetta, whose population has been swollen with Afghan refugees over the past two decades.

Two separate groups of tribal elders met Sunday to voice support for the United Nations formula for a post-Taliban government, which calls for an interim government protected by international peacekeepers, followed by a de facto constitutional assembly blessed by the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zaher Shah.

“There has been too much bloodshed in our country,” said Abdul Ahad, a member of the broad-based National Islamic Council. “Now is the time to bring people together.”

*

Richter and Gosselin reported from Washington. Times staff writers Robyn Dixon in Bangi, Afghanistan, and Tyler Marshall and Alissa J. Rubin in Quetta contributed to this report.


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