THEY had been waiting since before dawn, dug into a makeshift hide, almost half a mile behind enemy lines.
The four Royal Marine Commando snipers sat huddled in the dark, scouring a Taleban compound through the scopes on their L96A1 sniper rifles.
They had been watching the target since before dawn. The order to fire came an hour after first light. They levelled their bolt-action, single-shot rifles at two Taleban sentries less than 250 metres away. Village dogs were barking but the insurgents never saw their killers.
The marines counted down from five, in unison, and the crack of four bullets rang out as one. The two sentries fell down dead. Confirmed kills: two, collateral damage: zero, and the snipers withdrew.
"They [the other Taleban] were looking around for us but they couldn't find us. We could see them and they weren't very happy," Corporal Simon, 36, told The Scotsman.
The snipers do such a sensitive job that few have been interviewed before, and those interviewed by this newspaper would only use their first names.
The sentries became the 39th and 40th kills of the elite and ultra-secretive Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) unit who, for the last six months, have been operating as part of 42 Commando in Helmand prov-ince. "We are the sharp end of the needle," Corporal Simon said.
The Taleban fighters killed during an operation this week had been based in the village of Olehabad, three-and-a-half kilometres from the marines' remote outpost at Kajaki.
Kajaki is the site of a dam and hydroelectric plant and is in desperate need of refurbishment. The USAID organisation is funding a project to add another turbine but before work can begin, it has insisted that a 6km safety zone is established. So far, marine commandos have cleared a 3km area outside the dam, but beyond that the Taleban are still very much in control.
It is outside this area that the snipers are at their most effective. Under cover of darkness, they patrol into position, dig a hide and wait. They fire off only a few shots before withdrawing.
They are backed up by a troop of marines who hide nearby and they also have a fire-support team travelling in highly mobile, heavily armed, open-topped Land Rovers to call upon.
On the latest operation, as the marine snipers were extracting themselves, they were ambushed from several directions by Taleban insurgents, who at times were as close as 200 meters. Smoke mortars were fired from a nearby hill and the snipers got back to base safely.
"As we collapsed our position we knew we were getting flanked and were ambushed and pinned down with small arms for a bit," said the corporal. The snipers' job in Afghanistan is made more difficult because Taleban rebels routinely use women and children as shields. They have also been known to dress as women and hide weapons under shawls.
"I've seen a fighter sitting on a motorbike with a woman and a kid on the back ... that's the hardest thing, finding the target," said the corporal. "I have a wife and kid, too, and I don't want to take the shot if I'm going to hit the wrong person."
The elite Royal Marine snipers take every precaution to ensure the man in their crosshairs is the one they want. All have graduated from Commando sniper school, considered the best course of its kind in the world.
"We have a pass rate of only 30 per cent - it's tough to get through," said Marine Ben, 22.
"The Royal Marine sniper school is the best in the world," added Marine Brendan, also just 22.
• THE L96A1 sniper rifle used by British forces in Afghanistan is manufactured by the Portsmouth company Accuracy International.
It was purpose-built for sniping, rather than being a variant of an existing weapon.
The company says it uses performance enhancing features learned in Olympic and international target shooting in the design of its weapons.
Accurate to a range of 1,000 metres, the rifle can shoot groups of 7.62mm bullets in a 51mm radius at 550 metres. It is generally fitted with a Schmidt & Bender 6 x 42 scope.
It has special de-icing features allowing it to be used effectively at temperatures as low as -40C. The stockhole, bolt, magazine release and trigger guard are large enough to be easily used while wearing heavy gloves.
The L96A1 is recognised as one of the best sniper rifles in the world and is used by the armed forces of Australia, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands and Singapore.