Marines will hunt al-Qa'ida in caves

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The Independent Online

The Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, last night gave the clearest hint yet that British Marines will attack heavily defended caves used by Osama bin Laden's forces as strongholds in Afghanistan.

Speaking to British troops on exercise in Oman, Mr Hoon indicated that he expected the 200 British Royal Marines of 40 Commando to be deployed to help flush out al-Qa'ida underground bases, which have proved difficult to destroy by air attack.

Mr Hoon said the Marines had a range of specialist capabilities and some of the air strikes had been directed at caves. "We assume that a number of the hiding places of Osama bin Laden employs are in the ground and that capability would be enormously important. The means to take people out of caves involves a lot of brave people attacking what can be a very well-defended position."

Special Air Service spotters have been used to help locate the caves for the delivery of precision bunker-buster bombs. One deep underground explosion, caused when a bomb hit an arms dump, devastated the village shown by Taliban to western journalists last week, said ministers.

Mr Hoon said: "It could be that the Taliban's fanaticism takes them through into the New Year. It could equally be that as a result of the sustained pressure ... on them, they collapse overnight."

It also emerged that Russian and Chinese generals have warned Tony Blair not to commit ground troops to a lengthy war in Afghanistan after British officials and the US turned to those countries for advice on their experience fighting in the area.

British MPs who visited the Oman troops last week returned to Westminster preparing to produce a damning report on equipment failures. Members of the Commons select committee on defence said they were concerned that lessons from the Kosovo conflict had not been learned.

Although the Oman exercise was judged a success, British equipment problems left the forces ill-equipped to sustain a desert battle. Chieftain ll battle tanks broke down when their air filters became choked with sand, and the rubber covers on tank tracks were destroyed by stones.

Soldiers complained that penny pinching by the Treasury had stopped the Ministry of Defence supplying them with desert boots; they were told to buy their own boots if needed for the exercise.

The MPs heard that a Chinook helicopter was stranded in the desert for six days with its crew on rations while spares were shipped out.

The troops also found their SA 80 rifle were jamming. They have been assured by ministers that all troops sent to Afghanistan will get the redesigned mark-2 SA 80 rifle.

The litany of problems will be used by the MPs in a report to Parliament to press for the armed forces to be given more back-up spares. And Mr Hoon is expected to use the damning report to argue, in the current spending review, for more money. He will also tell the Chancellor there can be no attempt to cut costs by delaying buying equipment.