Allies ‘fought locals, not the enemy’
COALITION commanders in Afghanistan were last night fending off allegations that they have launched a major operation involving air power and 1,000 marines after a patrol stumbled into a local tribal firefight.
Fighting broke out late on Thursday, when two Australian SAS patrols working in the southern mountains on Operation Condor were fired on. Coalition commanders say the Australians fired back and tried to pull out, but were pursued through the mountains for five hours, being shot at by rockets and heavy machine-guns.
The argument was finally settled when a US air force AC-130 Spectre gunship, one of the most lethal weapons in the coalition armoury, was summoned. The plane, a converted transport aircraft, blasted the gunmen with a 105mm cannon, plus at least four quick firing machine-guns, saturating the area with munitions and killing an unknown number of enemy forces.
A-10 attack planes and Apache attack helicopters were also on call, but were not needed after the AC-130 attack.
Brigadier Roger Lane, commander of 45 Royal Marine Commando battlegroup, spoke of al-Qaeda units being engaged in a battle, with marine units pouring in as reinforcements from their main base in Bagram. "Clearly, there’s a substantial force that’s there," he said. "Our mission is to destroy them. We can confirm that the coalition has made contact with the enemy and some have been killed."
However, local reports contradict this version of events. Authorities in the nearest town, Khost, said that the men engaged were from rival Sabari and Balkhiel tribes, apparently fighting each other over ownership of a clump of trees and surrounding land.
The Afghan Islamic Press agency said the US pilots had attacked a wedding, mistaking celebratory fire for an al-Qaeda concentration.
The Coalition was quick to dismiss these reports, saying the Australians believed they were attacked by al-Qaeda because they had been targeted by sustained fire over a long period.
"It was five hours of sustained fire," said Lieutenant Colonel Ben Curry. "It was RPGs [anti-tank rockets] and machine guns. I will say that we have been looking at that area for several days and we believe it was being used by al-Qaeda and Taleban."
Coalition liaison officers have agreed to meet local leaders this morning to look into their claims that they were attacked.
The Coalition force clearly hopes it has stumbled on an al-Qaeda base. The region deep in the southern mountains near the Pakistan border, is prime al-Qaeda country.
Throughout yesterday waves of huge twin-rotor Chinook helicopters, some with underslung 105mm howitzers took off from the main base at Bagram ferrying Royal Marines into the region.
By last light more than 1,000 troops, mostly marines but also including teams of Australian and US special forces, were spread in a search over an area between 30 and 40 square miles. "They’ve been deployed to the area to support the Australians and are providing searches," said Col Curry.
In fact, al-Qaeda forces have not been seen in large numbers in Afghanistan since March, when they fought a pitched battle with US forces during Operation Anaconda. There is huge pressure on the coalition forces, and especially on the Royal Marines, to produce results after the much-hyped arrival of the British troops.
At home, there were renewed accusations from opposition politicians that ministers had "hyped up" the prospects of combat before the marines were deployed.
Nicholas Soames, the former Tory defence minister, said: "I think this is part of the No 10 spin operation extending into even military operations, and military operations unfortunately cannot be run to the tune of the spinmeisters."
Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, added: "The manner in which expectations of hot combat are massaged with each new operation is simply adding to the confusion surrounding their role."
A suspected terrorist freed by an Old Bailey judge yesterdayu faced further accusations that he sent money to fund the al-Qaeda network.
Yasser Al-Siri, 39, a London bookseller of Edinburgh House, Maida Vale, was bailed at Bow Street Magistrates Court and re-arrested on the basis of a US extradition warrant. He was ordered by the district judge, Timothy Workman, to provide three sureties of 5,000, to sleep at his address, to refrain from entering any port, airport, airfield and Waterloo Station without prior notice to the police, and not to apply for any travel documents.
He is due to appear before the same court on 31 May.
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