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WAR ON TERROR: WE TAKE AIRPORT: INTO THE MINEFIELDS; First British combat mission US fighters give them cover.

Byline: BOB ROBERTS and TOM NEWTON DUNN

SPECIAL Boat Squadron forces braved minefields and a deadly patchwork of unexploded booby traps yesterday as they entered Afghanistan.

The 80-strong squad is believed to have parachuted from a modified C130 Hercules aircraft flown from neighbouring Uzbekistan, at about 12pm UK time.

As they floated to the ground to secure Bagram airbase 15 miles north of Kabul they were covered from the air by low-flying US fighter planes in case of a Taliban counterstrike.

The area is littered with mines, booby traps and other hazards left by the fleeing Taliban which will have to be cleared.

But last night a Government source said the men met no resistance and no shots were fired.

The source said: "There is an advance party on the ground in Afghanistan. They had a look-see, made sure everything was OK and secured the base.

"Their task is to assist in securing the airport to prepare for future deployment to ensure it is open and safe for humanitarian aid to go in."

It was the first deployment of British troops on a combat mission inside Afghanistan since Operation Veritas was launched.

It was also the first time UK forces have parachuted into action since the 1956 Suez crisis.

Yesterday's operation will pave the way for a much larger deployment of British forces that could begin today.

Once the SBS are satisfied that Bagram can be held, they will ask for support from the 230 Royal Marine commandos on board HMS Fearless and HMS

Illustrious in the Indian Ocean.

But defence sources last night insisted no official decision had yet been taken on whether to deploy any force in strength.

More than 4,000 British troops are on standby. Forces from other countries are expected to follow the UK operation and secure more airports.

Yesterday's raid was planned with the aid of local Northern Alliance commanders who took Bagram three days earlier.

It came after it was disclosed that Britain was pushing the US and European leaders to send thousands of ground troops into Afghanistan "within days".

Tony Blair said: "Let me emphasise once again that this conflict is not over. We still have to achieve our objectives."

Cabinet Minister Clare Short said speed was "of the essence" now the Taliban were collapsing.

She told a No 10 press conference: "We need troops on the ground, bringing order and reassurance to the Afghan people. We need to move in days."

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "The important thing is to get on with the job right away.

"It's bound to take some time to rebuild what is an almost completely devastated state. That happened in Germany after the war. It's almost bound to happen here now."

Yesterday it was announced that father-of-three Stephen Evans, 51, will take up residence in the British Ambassador's compound as "our man in Kabul" at the weekend.

He is the first British diplomat to be posted to Afghanistan for more than a decade. Britain is the also first country to have a diplomatic presence in Kabul.

Bagram air base existed as a "no man's land" for months before the September 11 attacks on America. It was bitterly fought over by the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

But it is almost ideal for immediate use because it is an all-weather base.

The airfield has a 10,000ft runway, capable of serving cargo and bomber aircraft.

Combat engineers will be brought in to ensure that the runway, taxiways and parking areas are safe for aircraft operations.

Additional security measures - such as hardened aircraft shelters, minefields and ground surveillance radars - will also need to be installed.

Last night, the Northern Alliance said it had captured a runaway band of 20 Taliban officials, including a former police chief in Kabul and ex-governor of Herat, trying to slip over the Pakistan border.

They were hiding among more than 100 troops making a bid for freedom from the fighting.

According to reports, the group tried to disguise themselves by shaving off their beards and travelling light without documents.

Sources named one of the prisoners as former Governor General of Kabul and ex-police chief Mullah Samad.

Another was named as former Herat Governor Mullah Baradar.

Northern Alliance General Azizula Afzali also said his forces seized more than 60 vehicles in Golran, north west Afghanistan.

The 20 captured troops are thought to be those referred to by US military chiefs in Washington.

They said it was hoped the capture would lead to an "intelligence dividend" in the continuing hunt for terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.

The hunt for bin Laden was also boosted yesterday by the defection of a Taliban intelligence chief.

Deputy Interior Minister Haji Mullah Khaksar has switched sides after staying behind in Kabul when the Taliban fled.

He helped set up the Taliban's intelligence operation in 1996 and almost certainly knows where the al-Qaeda high command and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar are hiding.

Khaksar has not been arrested or harmed by the Northern Alliance, leading to the belief that he is cooperating fully.

His defection will further strain relations between bin Laden and the Taliban.

CAPTION(S):

FEARSOME: SBS parachuted into action; IN ACTION: Hercules; OBJECTIVE: SBS targeted Bagram airport
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 16, 2001
Words:871
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