POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C. — The Pentagon would like to move low-flying, deadly AC-130 gunships closer to Northern Afghanistan to support anti-Taliban forces in their battle for control of Kunduz, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday.
Also, the Navy has given notice it will stop and board merchant shipping off the coast of Pakistan if the ships are suspected of carrying Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaida leaders, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan said Wednesday.
Lapan said the notice to mariners was issued Tuesday, but he did not know if any boardings had been conducted.
Rumsfeld would not confirm reports that Uzbekistan has agreed to allow AC-130s to fly from its territory and said none has been based there so far.
"It would be helpful for us to have AC-130s up north, particularly when you have a situation like Kunduz because that particular weapons system and platform can put out an enormous amount of ordnance with a great deal of precision," he told reporters in route to Pope Air Force Base, where he received a tour of an AC-130 on the tarmac.
AC-130s have been used heavily against Taliban and al Qaida targets in southern Afghanistan. One of their most fearsome aspects is a pair of 20mm Gatling guns, which each can fire 2,500 rounds of ammunition per minute.
Rumsfeld also confirmed that the Air Force's new high-altitude unmanned surveillance plane, the Global Hawk, is now operating over Afghanistan for the first time.
A U.S. helicopter crash-landed in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, injuring four crew members, according to U.S. Central Command which runs the war in Afghanistan. The statement said the cause of the accident is unknown but that it was not due to hostile fire.
A Pentagon spokesman said the injuries, including several broken bones, were not considered life-threatening. The helicopter crew was evacuated and the helicopter removed.
Tuesday's U.S. air strikes concentrated on areas near Kunduz and Kandahar, the two last remaining Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan, Pentagon spokesman Richard McGraw said.
He said aircraft conducted 146 missions over Afghanistan, but did not disclose how many bombed targets. Many of the missions were flown to assist anti-Taliban insurgents.
As many as 1,500 Marines specially trained for complex missions such as counterterrorism probably will be sent to Afghanistan soon, perhaps this week, a senior U.S. official said. The Marines could provide security for other U.S. forces or help Army and Air Force special operations troops expand the search for Osama bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida terrorist network.
However, Pentagon officials have not made a final decision on sending in the Marines, the official said, nor have they determined how many troops would be sent and for what tasks. A small advance team might slip into Afghanistan first to arrange for the others' arrival, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Two Marine units are waiting aboard ships in the nearby Arabian Sea.
They are part of Marine Expeditionary Units, groups of about 2,200 fighters, pilots and support staff trained to be the first large units to respond to a military crisis. Each unit is anchored by a battalion of about 1,500 Marine infantry troops, who are supported by groups of attack and transport helicopters, fighter jets and armored vehicles.
One is the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Pendleton, Calif., which is based on the USS Peleliu and its support ships. The other unit in the Arabian Sea is the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejune, N.C., based on the USS Bataan.
Sending in the Marines would substantially increase the number of U.S. troops on the ground. Rumsfeld has said several hundred U.S. special forces are in Afghanistan now, including Army Green Beret and Delta Force units.
The hunt for bin Laden and al-Qaida leaders already has had some success. A Nov. 14 airstrike on a building outside the capital of Kabul killed al-Qaida's military chief, Mohammed Atef. The strike also killed another 50 al-Qaida members, several senior Taliban officials and an undisclosed number of Taliban fighters, said another U.S. official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. officials don't know whether bin Laden is still in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon also plans to send an undetermined number of additional troops into northern Afghanistan soon to help other nations' forces secure a land route for humanitarian relief, other officials said.
The United States is not participating in negotiations between anti-Taliban forces and the Taliban and al-Qaida troops under siege in the northern city of Kunduz, Stufflebeem said.
Negotiations with the Taliban commander of Kunduz aim to secure the surrender of the city of 100,000 and stave off what threatens to be the bloodiest battle yet of the Taliban's collapse.
Rumsfeld has said he is against any deal that would allow Taliban or terrorist forces to escape to do harm in another country another day. But Stufflebeem said bombing could be halted if opposition forces asked.