- The Washington Times - Friday, November 30, 2001

SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN Giant C-17 transport planes disgorged steamrollers, road graders and Navy engineers yesterday at a U.S. Marine camp in southern Afghanistan.

U.S. military authorities did not say how the heavy equipment would be used, but it could be for building roads or runways at the small desert airstrip near Kandahar that quickly is becoming a significant U.S. base of operations.

Kandahar is the last major stronghold of the Taliban militia. The United States accuses the Taliban of harboring the masterminds of the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

"We are rapidly building up combat power here," said Marines spokesman Capt. David Romley.

It was unclear how many Seabees Navy construction engineers and troops from the Marines Support Services arrived at the camp overnight.

In Washington, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said that by Wednesday between 750 and 800 Marines had reached the base. The troops seized the sand runway and nearby buildings on Sunday. The military said the land belonged to a wealthy Arab.

[The U.S. flag was hoisted above the base yesterday by a lance corporal born in Kabul who fled the country in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion, Reuters news agency reported.

["I'm coming back home," said Ajmal Achekzai.]

The commander of the U.S. war effort, Gen. Tommy Franks, has said up to 1,100 troops could be stationed at the base.

A false alarm shortly after dark yesterday sent the Marines scrambling to a full security alert.

Entire patrols including one helmeted Marine wearing only long underwear under his flak jacket ran to take up defensive positions as CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters were landing and churning up great clouds of dust.

Capt. Romley said high-flying planes had spotted what initially was thought to be an unidentified aircraft but probably was just another American plane.

"We just have to take the greatest possible precautions with unidentified aircraft," he said.

By coincidence, shots were heard at the same time. They turned out to be firing by American troops conducting a previously scheduled weapons test.

The Marines have opened fire against an alien force only once since their arrival. Cobra helicopter gunships attacked a column of vehicles Monday night after U.S. Navy aircraft bombed them. The convoy belonged to the Taliban, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the base's executive officer, Maj. Mike Hyams, said efforts to improve the camp were going well considering the conditions.

"The dust has been pretty challenging and it's colder than I expected," said Maj. Hyams, 36, of Dahlonega, Ga.

Temperatures approach freezing at night but have been high enough at midday for some Marines to remove their shirts while working.

The base's soldiers come from the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units, which normally number more than 4,000, plus other troops forming Task Force 58. The two units are based on six ships in the northern Arabian Sea.

The Associated Press was allowed to deploy with the Marines on condition that it didn't report on troop strengths, mission plans, the location of the base or other secret information.

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