US doubles Apache force as marines prepare for battle

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The Independent Online

The United States is doubling the size of its Apache helicopter force at Bagram air base, to provide support for Royal Marines against Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters in the Afghan mountains. Four additional aircraft will arrive from Kandahar in the next 24 hours to join the build-up of forces at the former Soviet base, in preparation for a series of assaults in northern and eastern Afghanistan.

The Apaches, widely used in the American offensives at Tora Bora and Gardez, will provide aerial firepower alongside a land-based Royal Artillery battery of six 105mm howitzers.

One of the roles of the gunships will be to intercept any enemy fighters trying to flee into Pakistan after an Allied attack. British and American commanders have been deeply frustrated that Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters have repeatedly taken refuge across the border during recent operations, with the Pakistani army seemingly powerless to stop them. Brigadier Roger Lane, the British forces commander, has stressed that his mandate does not allow hot pursuit across the frontier, but there have been reports of US helicopters carrying out strikes in Pakistani territory.

There has been a certain amount of American chagrin at the seeming British takeover of the war and the dozens of British journalists referring to Bagram, the focal point of Allied operations in Afghanistan, as the 'Royal Marines base'. There was further exasperation over news reports which said British artillery had been brought to Afghanistan to finish the job the Americans failed to complete at Gardez and Tora Bora.

Yesterday, however, Captain Jason Smith, of Charlie Company, 101st Airborne Division, was keen to downplay any talk of rivalry between his men and the British troops. "We have no problems working with all the coalition forces," he said. "Our pilots are experienced in combat in Afghanistan and it will be a pleasure to work with the Royal Marines."

Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Abbott, who flew Apaches in their first combat missions in the Gulf War in 1991, said: "In the Kandahar area the problem was clouds of sand which made take-off and landing difficult. In the mountains it should be clearer.

"We can attack on the guidance of troops on the ground, but I like to see the target myself. This not only prevents accidents, but I know that if I can see him, I can hit him."

* Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused of complicity in the 11 September attacks, tried to dismiss his legal team yesterday, alleging they were conspiring with the US government to have him executed. "It's a sophisticated version of the kiss of death," Mr Moussaoui said at a federal court in Washington.

Judge Leonie Brinkema refused to dismiss the lawyers, though she said he did not have to co-operate with them. She also ordered a mental examination to ensure he would be able to represent himself.