A long column of U.S. military vehicles rolled out of the new American base here and headed into the Afghan desert Saturday, its destination a secret.
Seen from a U.S. Marine outpost high on a sand dune outside the base, the column, which included light armor, stretched about a mile and a half. It left a plume of dust as it drove across the powdery sands.
U.S. officials would not say where the vehicles were going or state their purpose. "But I don’t think anything here is an exercise," said Capt. Stewart Upton, a spokesman for Task Force 58, which combines the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units with air and naval support for Operation Swift Freedom. He said he could provide no other information.
Meanwhile, Afghan tribal warriors claimed to be making a major assault on Taliban forces defending Kandahar’s airport Saturday night as thousands more fighters from another anti-Taliban faction headed toward the city from the north.
South of Kandahar, U.S. jets pounded Taliban positions around the airport incessantly, refugees from the embattled militia’s last stronghold said. Some told of increasingly desperate Taliban soldiers moving from house to house, trying to hide among civilians from the fury of American airstrikes.
"People think it’s just like doomsday. They’re in a terrible situation," said one refugee, Mohebullah, who arrived in the Pakistani border town of Chaman on Saturday.
Reporting on fighting around Kandahar, sources from several southern Pashtun tribes said fighters loyal to former Kandahar governor Gul Agha launched an assault in the airport area Saturday night.
Mohammed Anwar, a tribal ally of Agha, said in Pakistan that front-line commanders told him by radio they had advanced within two miles of the airport, but paused because U.S. advisers said they wanted to bomb Taliban defenses before the final attack.
"We are waiting for the air attacks to subside," Anwar said. "After that, we’ll move."
To the north of the city, thousands of fighters loyal to another Pashtun leader, Hamid Karzai, had moved to within 30 miles of Kandahar, said Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Karzai.
Ahmed Karzai said his brother’s fighters were meeting no resistance as they moved toward Kandahar, where the Taliban originated in the early 1990s.
Reports of attacks near Kandahar could not be independently verified because the Taliban have refused to allow Western reporters into their territory. Travelers reaching both Kabul and Pakistan reported fighting around the city and heavy U.S. air attacks.
"In the last 24 hours, five minutes haven’t gone by without us hearing bombing and the roaring of planes," Kandahar resident Khalil Ahmed said in Chaman.
"There are a lot of Taliban in the street, but now they are mixed with the civilians," said Gul Mohammed, a taxi driver who arrived in Kabul Saturday. "As soon as the jets come, the Taliban go into the streets with the civilians and they mix with the people."
Back at the American Marine outpost, a military official said Saturday there had been no movement of U.S. Marines toward Kandahar yet. So far, light armor has been used for patrols, a defensive tactic to keep the base secure.
Out on a sand dune outpost held by Charlie Company of the 15th expeditionary unit about 1 1/2miles from the base, 1st Sgt. Phil Fascetti, 38, of Spokane, said he is aware Taliban forces could be near.
He said a major assault would never get close to the base, but his troops are particularly on guard for night assaults by small units that might try to slip through to aircraft on the ground or into the base.
"They kind of have the home-field advantage," Fascetti said.
But he added that the Marines have the training, weapons and technology, such as night vision goggles and laser scopes, to stop infiltration attempts.
Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.