SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN U.S. Marines went on alert late Thursday and fired mortars around their base in southern Afghanistan to repel what a spokesman said was "almost certainly" an attempt by Taliban forces to probe their defenses.
A UHN-1 Huey helicopter crashed near the airstrip here at Camp Rhino, and Marine spokesman Capt. Stewart Upton said two servicemen received minor injuries, one of them on the ground.
He said the cause of the crash was under investigation, but "we are 99 percent sure that the helicopter did not crash cause of enemy fire."
Before the crash, small arms fire reverberated through the desert base along with the crip blast of mortar rounds being fired. Flares lit up the flat, dusty desert around Camp Rhino while journalists crouched in trenches.
The base went on high alert Thursday night because of what a spokesman, Capt. David T. Romley, called a "credible threat." He said armed reconnaissance vehicles were sent into the desert to try to identify the intruders and call in mortar fire.
"We're almost positive it is enemy probing," said another spokesman, Capt. Stewart Upton. He said it was clear that whoever was moving outside the perimeter had "hostile intent."
Journalists in the camp, who were issued military flak jackets and helmets, could see no incoming fire. However, they heard shouting outside the camp and the sound of gunfire. Helicopters made sweeps overhead in the clear night sky.
Defense Department rules governing the journalists' presence in the camp forbid reporting on exact operational measures being taken.
Since the Marines seized this desert airstrip on Nov. 25, their only combat operation came on their second day, when Cobra helicopter gunships from the base helped warplanes from elsewhere attack a suspected hostile convoy that passed nearby.
But the Marines said Wednesday that they were moving into position around the Taliban's last stronghold, Kandahar, to make sure the Taliban don't escape or bring in reinforcements. The Taliban agreed Thursday to surrender the city, but had yet to begin handing over their weapons.
Marines from Base Rhino were called into action on Wednesday after an errant U.S. bomb killed three U.S. servicemen and five anti-Taliban Afghan fighters and wounded 19 Americans and around 20 Afghans.
Some of the injured were flown to the base, which has a Navy field medical unit with 10 doctors. The Americans and some of the Afghans were immediately flown out on C130 transports to hospitals elsewhere.
Reporters at the base were kept away from the medical unit as the casualties were brought in.
Maj. James Parrington, executive officer of the Marine Expeditionary Unit 15th's Battalion Landing Team 1, said other troops at the base were aware of the incident and that it has steeled them for the fight.
"This is real. We're not playing around. There are people out there who mean us ill will. It is serious," Parrington said.
The Marines, which U.S. officials have said number about 1,300, include the 15th and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Units, equipped with heavily armored vehicles and anti-tank weapons.
David Martin is a photographer with The Associated Press who is part of a media pool at Base Rhino.