SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN U.S. Marine helicopter gunships attacked an armored column Monday "in the vicinity of" the new base the Americans have created in the Afghan desert to press their war on terrorism, a Marine spokesman said.
The Cobra gunships destroyed some of the 15 vehicles in the column after it was spotted by "fast-moving aircraft," Capt. David Romley told reporters. He did not say whether the convoy belonged to the Taliban.
The attack was the Marines' first action since establishing a foothold Monday within striking distance of the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan
Romly indicated the attack was still going on when he spoke to reporters shortly before midnight. He would not give any details about the location of the column or the direction in which it was moving, except to say it was "in the vicinity of this base."
Nor did he identify the "troops" who were attacked by the Marine gunships, but the Americans' new desert base put them within striking distance of Kandahar, home of the Taliban militia that has sheltered Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.
Romley said the column included tanks and BMPs. BMPs are armored combat vehicles on treads, mounted with guns and capable of carrying at least a dozen people. They were used by the Soviet army during its decade-long occupation of Afghanistan. When the Red Army departed in 1989, it turned scores of them over to its client regime, which later lost them to a variety of local militias and warlords.
Meanwhile, under a bright moon, Marines worked to turn their desert airstrip into a land base as part of Operation Swift Freedom, which is a major shift in a war that until now had been fought mostly from the air.
Well into the night Monday, helicopters and transport aircraft bringing Marines and equipment came and went from the USS Peleliu in the northern Arabian Sea and from land bases on the coast whose location the military kept secret. The full deployment, to total about 1,000 Marines, was expected to continue at least another day.
The chosen airstrip was isolated. There were no signs of towns in the distance across the flat desert. The only lights for miles around were the runway lights installed by the Marines and lights they were burning in the airstrip's buildings.
According to Col. Peter Miller, chief of staff of the Marine task force in Afghanistan, the sand airstrip and buildings had been built by a wealthy Arab to reach his hunting lodge.
The compound included a small mosque with a minaret and a large white building that may have been a hangar.
The Associated Press was allowed to deploy with the troops on condition they not identify the exact locations of the base or numbers of troops and future mission plans.
"The Marines have landed and we now own a piece of Afghanistan," Gen. James Mattis, commander of the attack task force, said Monday. "Everything went without a hitch."
In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said about 500 Marines seized the airstrip and a total of about 1,000 Marines was expected to take part in establishing the initial ground base. The troop movement was expected to take at least another day to complete, she said.
Clarke said the mission was to establish a forward operating base. She declined to elaborate except to say the forces would pressure Taliban militia forces and bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
Also in Washington, President Bush said the troops would assist in hunting down terrorists linked to the Sept. 11 attacks.
There were more than 4,000 Marines in the expeditionary units taking part in the landing. Two Marine Expeditionary Units, the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 15th and the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 26th, were combined into Task Force 58 based on ships within 12 nautical miles of the Arabian Sea coast. Such Marine Corps units are trained for combat, evacuations, humanitarian aid and other missions.
The first troops to land from the 15th in helicopters were supported by AH-1W Cobra and Huey helicopter gunships, Harrier jet fighters and other aircraft. The aircraft had to fly as far as 400 miles from their mother ships in what was described as the longest distance amphibious and air deployment in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps.
"We are going to operate at the very extremes of the ability of our machinery," said Miller, the task force chief of staff.
"We would much prefer to be closer in, because it just makes it logistically that much easier for us. But the way this operation is designed, with the intermediate staging bases, we'll be able to pull this off," said the British-born U.S. Marine.
Shortly before the raid began Sunday night, the steel hull of the Peleliu echoed with the sound of gunfire as the troops tested their weapons by firing them into the sea from a wide doorway. Then they hauled their packs, weapons and protective gear often pushing 100 pounds of equipment to transport helicopters waiting on deck.
These first troops, aboard CH-53E Super Stallion heavy lift helicopters, landed at the desolate airstrip on Sunday and met no resistance, according to their reports.
The operation meant flying often close to the ground and refueling in flight over miles of hostile Afghan territory.
As some of the troops boarded helicopters, beads of sweat on their faces from the heat and the strain of carrying their heavy gear, Marine Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Donald Troast, 48, of Boston, watched, touching some of them on the shoulder.
When they were aboard, he stood with his head bowed. He said later: "I asked God to bless every one of them, I don't care what their religion is."