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INCOMING! Mirror's Chris faces Taliban rocket attack on front line.

Byline: CHRIS HUGHES Security Correspondent in Gereshk, Afghanistan

IT WAS just another day at the office for 3 Commando Brigade, posted in the dusty badlands of southern Afghanistan.

One minute nothing but the sound of silence in this taupe desert. The next, a nerve-jangling shriek as a khaki-clad figure screams "incoming!"

A high-pitched whistle above our heads signals the start of another Taliban attack.

After hurling ourselves into a ditch, we hear the dull thump of a mortar round slamming into the ground just yards away.

We duck low in our "shell scrape" - a shallow dug-out - as the pop of another mortar being fired is heard and a young Royal Marine bellows: "And again, take cover!"

So began a terrifying 45-minute barrage, the sort of attack UK forces on the ground here are facing every day.

The second blast landed just in front of the raised ground we were hiding behind, sending dirt flying through the air before showering down on us.

A black plume of smoke marked the impact spot. By now the anticipation of a possible direct hit was unbearable.

The Taliban mortar teams have a reputation for inaccuracy, which ironically makes their attacks more dangerous. You can never tell where the next round is coming from.

More Chinese-made missiles rained down, the whistles turning to screams before the inevitable ground-shaking impact.

In a brief lull, photographer Chris Grieve and I sprinted to a nearby Afghan police shelter, one of many British-built constructions in the district. Suddenly we heard new explosions, some distance away.

Sgt Major Wayne John, 41, leant in the doorway and told us: "Those last bangs aren't a problem for us - it's our mortar lines firing back at the Taliban."

As more explosions went off, we peered into the dusk gloom and saw a short, bearded teenager wielding three hefty rocket-propelled grenades. Brandishing the rockets, seemingly without a care in the world, he was actually making tea and grinning. Meanwhile, a local taxi pulled up near a Royal Marines position and unceremoniously rolled out a dying Afghan National Police officer.

The man - in his 20s - had either stepped on a roadside bomb or been hit by a stray mortar. Medics called in a "casi-vac" helicopter to try to save him.

We watched helplessly as they fought to treat his massive chest and abdominal wounds by the side of the road. Emergency medical supply wrappers fluttered away in the breeze as the team struggled desperately for 20 minutes to save him.

BUT he slipped into unconsciousness and died minutes later. They covered his body, picked him up gently and took him away.

This is an everyday occurrence, but British troops from 3 Commando Brigade are successfully bolstering the ANP's confidence to fight off the Taliban threat. They are helping them build secure roadblocks in key areas. Yesterday's operation was to build a roadblock south of Gereshk - with 42 Commando's M Company acting as protection while engineers from 59 Commando and 28 Regiment Royal Engineers did the construction.

All in 18 hours, all with the ever-present threat of attack as we were to discover all too well. The operation began at 10pm the previous night as the engineers began shifting 680 tonnes of sand and rubble in an area twice the size of a football pitch, starting in darkness and continuing well into daylight. Even before Taliban forces stopped firing, the 50 engineers were busy trying to finish their mission as two Apache helicopters flew into the airspace above and M Company fought off the attack.

We looked down at the main road 75ft below us where cars and lorries were beeping at each other, frantically trying to escape. Another mortar hit waste ground on the other side of the road as the vehicles sped off in the direction of the Taliban attackers but away from the target area. Then it was all over as quickly as it had begun. Forty-five minutes of terror during a gruelling non-stop 18-hour op.

MOMENTS before the first mortar strike, Navy Petty Officer Sean Clee and Royal Marine Sergeants Steve Hignett and Baz Shaw - a coalition combat camera team - had regaled us with stories.

Sean sang: "What's that coming over the hill... is it a mortar... is it a mortar?" his own version of Automatic's hit song, then laughed. The marines had been waiting for the attack all day as they had come under a vicious assault days earlier when the Taliban fired up to 60 rocket and mortar rounds.

That time they were setting up three vehicle checkpoints, reinforcing them with sand-bagged shelters, barbed wire and chicanes around Gereskh, in Helmand province.

Throughout that attack, men from 28 Regiment Royal Engineers had carried on digging and building in their tractors. Then almost as suddenly as it had begun, the bombing stopped and the engineers had completed their task. Two helicopters patrolled above to frighten off any remaining Taliban.

The 42 Commando troops - with whom we are embedded - jogged to a nearby landing zone and a Chinook troop carrier came into view, swerving dramatically then dropping to the ground like a giant beetle to whisk us back to Camp Bastion


UNDER FIRE: The Mirror's Chris Hughes in a bunker as Marines take on the Taliban' QUICK WORK: Engineers building a roadblock Pictures: CHRIS GRIEVE
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 10, 2006
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