Royal Marines pull back after searching al-Qa'ida caves

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The Royal Marines began their withdrawal from eastern Afghanistan yesterday after searching a number of Taliban and al-Qa'ida cave complexes.

The combat mission, the first since the marines landed at San Carlos Bay in the Falklands 20 years ago, was seen as a dress rehearsal for operations next week.

British troops found booby-trapped bodies, confirming intelligence reports that al- Qa'ida or Taliban fighters had been regrouping in the region since being driven out by the US-led Operation Anaconda.

But there was no "contact'' with enemy forces and the marines suffered no casualties during the operation, which took place in mountains above the snow line at 10,000ft.

The operation, codenamed Ptarmigan, involved around 300 marines from 45 Commando, and is the first of a series. Suspected al-Qa'ida positions were neutralised by 105mm guns.

Regimental Sergeant Major Tony Jacka said: "We are learning more and more about this land every day. In time we are going to know more about it than the enemy down this valley, and that time is approaching fast; when it arrives we will kill him. There isn't one bloke up here that wants to go home without doing that.''

His companion, a 31-year-old corporal manning a light support weapon, added: "There are tons of unexploded ordnance down there, and a lot of dead bodies.

"This is one of the toughest places I have been in 13 years in the corps. I last spoke to the family two weeks ago when I was on HMS Ocean.

"I don't tell them about this sort of thing, they think I am at Bagram doing camp construction.''

Bagram air base, 32 miles north-east of Kabul, is the headquarters of the British expeditionary force. About half of the 1,700-strong force is already in the country, and the remainder is expected to arrive by the end of next week.

Yesterday the marines were charting the area and destroying paths and caves used by enemy forces.

Troop Sergeant Buck Ryan said: "The whole lot of us were keen to get up here. Some of the younger lads get so fired up you have to calm them down. We know how good we are, but you have to respect anyone who comes to fight you up here.''

Tom Jordan, 24, a radio operator, said: "I finished my basic training a week before they sent me out here.

"It's great to have the experienced blokes about you, it gives you some confidence.''

The sound of outgoing shells were suddenly interrupted by a louder, and nearer, explosion. At first it was thought this was Taliban mortar fire, and American air support was called in. It turned out to be a mountain sheep which had trodden on an anti-personnel mine.