Marines fly in as four SAS troops injured in gun battle

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The Independent Online

The military campaign inside Afghanistan entered a new and perilous phase yesterday when 500 United States Marines were flown in close to the Taliban's last stronghold of Kandahar.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence announced the first British casualties of the war yesterday. The MoD said four members of a special forces unit had been wounded ­ one seriously ­ in action close to Kandahar and have been brought back to Britain for hospital treatment.

The men, picked up by a helicopter rescue team, are understood to have been SAS troops on a "search and destroy" operation against al-Qa'ida and were said to have been attacking a command centre. One of those injured is said to be the son of an SAS soldier killed in the Falklands War.

The MoD also said all but about 400 of the 6,000 British troops on stand-by to go to Afghanistan were being taken off 48 hours' notice status.

The Taliban said again they would fight to their "last breath" to hold the city. The marines ­ carried in by wave after wave of helicopter drops across 400 miles of ocean and desert ­ will act as a "bridgehead" for conventional forces searching for Osama bin Laden and his fighters.

The marines are being brought in to help to control the routes to and from Kandahar and prevent al-Qa'ida fighters fleeing to Iran in the west or Pakistan in the east, the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, indicated.

But their presence at an airstrip 60 miles from Kandahar also suggests they could be involved in the struggle for the Taliban's military and spiritual base. Last night, US marines in attack helicopters fired on a convoy of about 15 vehicles seen travelling towards the airstrip.

Warning America to expect US soldiers to die, President George Bush said yesterday: "This is a dangerous period of time. This is a period of time in which we're now hunting down the people who are responsible for bombing America. I said this early on as the campaign began; America must be prepared for loss of life." Mr Bush also repeated warnings of further strikes against countries, such as Iraq and North Korea, that produce weapons of mass destruction.

A battle continued yesterday at a prison camp close to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where several hundred Taliban fighters were killed during an uprising on Sunday.

One American thought to have been working for the CIA is believed to have been killed after he was captured by the prisoners, who seized weapons from an armoury inside the prison, located within a fort held by the Northern Alliance.

Five US special forces soldiers were also seriously injured after they called in air strikes to attack the Taliban fighters. They were hit when those missiles struck close to their position.

The contingent of US marines ­ which is due to be doubled in the coming two days ­ was flown in to the Kandahar region from battleships in the Arabian Sea. Kandahar ­ strafed yesterday by American AC-130 gunships ­ is believed to be heavily defended with mines and artillery. While a number of other cities were taken by convincing the Taliban forces to surrender, a spokesman for the regime said this would not be the case in Kandahar. He said the Taliban's supreme commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar, remained in the city.

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