Marines attack Taliban convoy in first offensive ground action

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US Marines attacked a Taliban convoy near Kandahar, killing seven fighters in their first offensive ground action since setting up base in southern Afghanistan, a spokesman said on Friday. No Marines were injured.

The Marines also fired mortars into the surrounding desert after detecting Taliban fighters "probing the perimeter of the base," and two servicemen were injured when a UH­1N Huey helicopter crashed near the airstrip, Capt. David Romley said. The helicopter crash did not appear due to enemy action, he said.

Three vehicles approached a "hunter­killer" team of patrolling Marines at high speed on a road Thursday night, and the Marines attacked from the ground and from the air, Romley said.

"The enemy were shot dead," Romley said. "The forces killed were believed to be al­Qa'ida and Taliban forces."

Some of the Taliban and al­Qa'ida forces were in vehicles and some jumped out, fighting from the ground, he said. The Marines on the ground destroyed one of the vehicles, and US aircraft destroyed two more. It was unclear whether the aircraft came from the Marine airstrip or were based at sea.

Romley said the attack was the Marines' first offensive ground operation since seizing a desert airstrip as Forward Operating Base Rhino on November 25.

Their only combat operation had come on November 26, when Cobra helicopter gunships from the base helped warplanes from elsewhere attack a suspected hostile convoy that passed nearby.

But the Marines had announced Wednesday that they would move to a more aggressive mode to prevent the Taliban from escaping or bringing reinforcements into Kandahar.

The Marines also reported Taliban forces around the base itself, and the base went on alert Thursday night after lookouts spotted Taliban fighters "probing the perimeter of the base," Romley said.

Small arms fire reverberated through the desert base along with the crisp blast of outgoing mortar rounds. Flares lit up the flat, dusty desert around Camp Rhino while journalists crouched in trenches. The Marines also used an automatic grenade launcher, Romley said.

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.