US troops close in on Kandahar

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The Independent Online

US Marines moved troops and heavy weapons closer to the fallen Taliban stronghold of Kandahar on Monday to try to cut off escape routes for Taliban leaders and fighters.

Marines spokesman Captain Stewart Upton said the forces were not moving into Kandahar itself but were "reinforcing current operations" against bin Laden's al–Qa'ida network and remnants of the Taliban regime.

"We are continuing to look for the al–Qa'ida and Taliban who still have their weapons," Upton said. "If the Taliban hold their weapons, they will die."

Another spokesman, Captain David Romley, acknowledged the dangers the Marines face as they move closer to the city, which opposition Pashtun tribal forces took on Friday as Taliban troops fled – many with their weapons. Other Taliban are believed to remain in Kandahar.

"The closer you get to Kandahar the more dangerous in gets," Romley said. "There is a large presence of minefields."

The Marines have been manning roadblocks around Kandahar, carrying photographs of "key terrorists" in case they meet up with them. In one encounter on Friday, the Marines attacked a Taliban convoy that approached them at high speed, killing seven fighters with the help of air support. No Marines were injured.

Officials have said the Marines are trained in distinguishing "friend from foe," but haven't specified their methods.

More than 1,300 Marines seized a desert airstrip in the region on November 25 as a forward operating base known as Camp Rhino.

Captain Upton said the road operations around Kandahar would continue.

"We are continuing to move Marine assest up north to operate at various key pieces of terrain at various locations around Kandahar," he said. "We continue to block roads and avenues of exit to capture al–Qaida and enemy forces."

At the camp itself, Marines have been building a detention center for prisoners of war. Just outside the walls of the camp, the center – with a watch tower overlooking the pen – will house any battlefield detainees or prisoners of war that US military officials want to hold in Afghanistan.

Currently the base houses only one detainee: John Walker, 20, of Fairfax, California, a Taliban fighter who surrendered near the northern Afghan city of Mazar–e–Sharif, where he was caught in a prison uprising before US authorities took control of him and flew him here.

Captain Upton said that Walker was gaunt and dehydrated but in good condition as he recovered from a gunshot wound to his leg.