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1000 OF OUR BOYS IN BATTLE; Scots Marines lead hunt for al -Qaeda.

Byline: TOM NEWTON -DUNN in Bagram

A THOUSAND British troops last night started the final big push of the war in Afghanistan.

Elite Scots fighters from 45 Commando based at Arbroath make up the bulk of the massive offensive in Operation Snipe - a mission to smash al-Qaeda.

It is swelled by US troops and is by far the biggest combat mission for British armed forces since the Gulf War.

Hundreds of rifle company men from Arbroath, with Brigadier Roger Lane, left, in charge, have been dropped on strategic mountains under cover of darkness by Chinook helicopters. The last were arriving in the early hours of today.

British troop numbers are matched by America's elite 101st Airborne Division, so there is a total coalition force of 2000 men.

The troops are on a mission to seek and destroy the terrorist guerrillas in the network of ravines and passes that were impregnable to the might of Soviet invaders hunting Mujahideen in the 1980s.

But this action is planned to last for "days and weeks rather than weeks or months", a senior military source said last night.

The mission is fraught with risk and casualties are being expected but battle-group commander Brigadier Lane said that morale is "sky-high".

The wide area they have been given the task of clearing has never been entered by Western forces before. But by late last night, no firefights had been reported.

However, officers at Bagram, where the troops are based, refused to discuss whether they had met enemy fighters.

Commander Brigadier Lane, 48, who is head of 3 Commando Brigade, said: "Operation Snipe and others like it will in time remove the cancer of al-Qaeda from the very heart of Afghanistan.

"We've been tasked to conduct a full reconnaissance of the area and destroy any Taliban or al-Qaeda there.

"We also want to achieve a long term denial of the area to the enemy and destroy any infrastructure there.

"We will hand the area over to forces of the Afghan interim authority.

"It is a very difficult area and very difficult terrain. There is a degree of uncertainty into how many of the enemy are in the area.

"Morale is sky-high and we have the confidence, the equipment and, most importantly, the people to meet these challenges head on.

"We are ready for the many challenges and tasks that lie ahead."

The four rifle companies of 45 Commando - Whiskey, Xray, Yankee and Zulu - have been going into action over the past two days.

They are backed on the ground by the 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, with heavy bombardment and cover fire. The troops are getting the full array of air cover from the US Air Force who are sending up A10 Tankbuster jets.

A group of Afghan tribal fighters are with to the marines to identify any people the force meets as enemy fighters or innocent villagers.

The exact location of the mission in south eastern Afghanistan was last night being kept secret to maintain operational security.But it is known to be not much further than 25 miles away from the hot spot town of Khost, and away from the Pakistani border.

The area around Khost and Gardez in the mountainous border province of Paktia is al-Qaeda and the remainder of the Taliban's last stronghold in Afghanistan.

Intelligence reports suggest al-Qaeda also use the area as a major supply route from Pakistan. Brigadier Lane added: "The area is a natural crossroads from where the enemy move north, south, east or west.

"We have good reason to believe it is and has been a key base for the al-Qaeda terrorist network."

US President George Bush specially requested the expertise of 45 Commando who are Britain's cold and mountain warfare specialists. They train every year at a camp in Norway just below the Arctic Circle.

Two of the commando companies, Whiskey and Zulu, have already spent six days at an altitude of 10,000 feet during the cave-clearing mission, Operation Ptarmigan, two weeks ago.

The first of the troops sent in were the battle group's Brigade Reconnaissance Force.

Aside from specialist weapons and kit in Afghanistan, the commandos are wearing gaiters to protect against the wet and goggles to protect against dust and snow storms.

In a separate mission, a small number of Scots commandos are backing up American paratroopers on an operation close to the Pakistani border, it was also revealed last night.

Hundreds more troops were dropped near to Khost, tasked with raiding al-Qaeda and Taliban targets identified by secret Australian and British SAS teams hiding in the hills for weeks.

One target of the US-led offensive is believed to be the capture of a key associate of Osama bin Laden - who masterminded the September 11 plane attacks in America.

Bearded warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, who has a notorious reputation for barbarism, fought with the terror chief during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

Haqqani, who has been hunted by special forces for weeks, was the Taliban minister for tribal affairs and frontiers and the overall eastern commander of the regime's forces.

The 45 Commando troops in the hunt for him are moving around in specially adapted Land-Rovers. A US military source at Bagram last night said that this operation would last for "a couple of days".A10 TANKBUSTERThe US Air Force are providing a full array of air support for the mission in the shape of A10 Tankbuster jets, armed with missiles and a powerful Gatling gun, AH64 Apache attack helicopters and AC130 Spectre gunships. In addition, engineers from 59 Commando Regiment, Royal Engineers have been deployed to blow up caves and ammo dumps.SA 80 RIFLEThe full array of firepower available to troops includes SA80 5.56mm rifles, belt and box-fed Minimi machine guns, heavier-calibre General Purpose Machine Guns, 81mm mortars and MILAN anti-tank missiles. They are also armed with the British special forces' trademark weapons, the US-made M16 with attached M204 grenade launchers.ARTILLERY GUNSThe troops on the ground are being backed up by the six 105mm light field guns of 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, for heavy bombardment and covering fire. The guns, used in Operation Ptarmigan two weeks ago to blast al-Qaeda caves and arms dumps, can collectively put down 2000lbs of explosive per minute, with a range of 17km.
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:May 2, 2002
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