U.S. soldiers securing two Afghan airfields; Marine contingent passes 1,000

Thursday, November 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Small teams of Army soldiers are providing security at two airfields in northern Afghanistan, the Pentagon confirmed Thursday, while the number of Marines at a southern base climbed to more than 1,000.

Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, deputy director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the soldiers are from the Army's 10th Mountain Division. ``They are there for security operations, and they are in two locations in the north,'' he said without providing details.

Other officials said the soldiers number at least two dozen at Bagram airfield north of the Afghan capital and a similar number are at an airfield near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Stufflebeem said similar security teams will be moved around northern Afghanistan to ``increase the size of the footprint in one location and shrink it in others.''

Meanwhile, U.S. officials said anti-Taliban forces captured an Osama bin Laden follower who is a son of Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman. The elder Abdel-Rahman is jailed in the United States for plotting to blow up New York City landmarks.

Ahmed Abdel-Rahman was being held in Mazar-e-Sharif and his interrogators included Americans, said Cairo lawyer Montasser el-Zayat, who defends Islamic militant suspects. U.S. officials say Abdel-Rahman is an al-Qaida recruiter.

Stufflebeem said he had seen no U.S. intelligence reports to substantiate the capture of Abdel-Rahman.

In addition, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. intelligence had received credible reports that a Taliban intelligence chief had defected to the Northern Alliance ``but we have not been able to corroborate those reports yet.''

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke refused to comment on captured figures, but said there have been defections among important Taliban figures, ``another sign that the Taliban continues to be degraded.''

``There have been defections ... of some of the more senior people,'' Clarke said Thursday, declining to name them or say how many there were.

Highlighting the continuing danger of lawlessness and possible reprisals from the Taliban, the Pentagon has sent two units of about two dozen soldiers each to help guard U.S. military personnel helping to repair airfields in Mazar-e-Sharif and north of Kabul in Bagram, military officials said Wednesday. The soldiers are from the 10th Mountain Division, which has about 1,000 soldiers providing security at an air base the Americans are using in Uzbekistan.

Near the southern city of Kandahar, more Marines and equipment have been ferried in to bring their strength to slightly more than 1,000, Clarke said in a Thursday briefing.

The Marines are the only substantial U.S. ground force in Afghanistan, although the Pentagon has not ruled out eventually putting more Army troops there if the current approach to rooting out al-Qaida and Taliban leadership fails. For now, the Pentagon is content to seek information from local Afghans on the enemy's whereabouts and to bomb the caves, tunnels and other facilities in which they might be hiding.

In the north, soldiers also will help protect U.S. forces setting up field hospitals, coordinate food deliveries and advise anti-Taliban fighters, military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Similar security teams probably will be sent to other areas of Afghanistan, one official said.

Bagram's airfield, which had been a key base for the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, eventually may be used to launch U.S. combat operations, officials said. It was not clear whether those missions would involve strike aircraft or ground troops.

The 10th Mountain units are too small to deal with large-scale threats, however, officials said.

Although the anti-Taliban northern alliance now controls the northern half of Afghanistan, the area is still dangerous. Taliban prisoners of war rioted at a fort near Mazar-e-Sharif this week, killing a CIA officer who became the first American killed in combat in Afghanistan during the anti-terrorism campaign that began Oct. 7.

The CIA confirmed Wednesday that Johnny ``Mike'' Spann died in the Taliban uprising. President Bush planned to send a letter of condolence to the family of Spann, a native of Winfield, Ala., who lived in a Virginia suburb of Washington.