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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
UK marines seize Afghan caves
Royal Marines
A 1,700-strong marine force is being assembled
The Royal Marines have seized cave complexes deep in the Afghan mountains along the Pakistan border, it emerged on Tuesday.

It was the biggest operation mounted so far by British forces in Afghanistan, but there was no combat involved.

The aim was to make the area, just south of Khost, safe for American infantry trying to flush out pockets of Taleban and al-Qaeda resistance.

The 44 Royal Marines supported by a mortar unit from the Parachute Regiment arrived at the caves last week, but the al-Qaeda fighters had already fled.
Arrival at Bagram Airport
The troops face resilient fighters

When confirming the mission on Tuesday, a Ministry of Defence spokesman told BBC News Online that documents were left behind which could provide valuable intelligence.

The fleeing of al-Qaeda members is being interpreted as evidence they are heading across the frontier to Pakistan, seeking sanctuary there and hoping to regroup.

After the area was secured, the valley was handed over to 500 infantrymen from the US 101st airborne division.

Combat

A Ministry of Defence spokesman in Bagram, north of Kabul, said the unit had primarily been involved in airport security at Bagram since last November.

"But recently it has also been involved in other operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom," he added.

More marines are on their way to Afghanistan - a 1,700-strong force is being assembled for full-scale missions against al-Qaeda which are due to begin soon.

Although there was no fighting in this latest operation, the marines expect to be in combat within weeks.

The first contingent of marine forces arrived last week.

It is working alongside US forces in flushing out remaining pockets of fighters from their remote mountain strongholds.

The danger of the mission was further emphasised on Tuesday, when the US military confirmed a $100,000 bounty had been offered to Afghans for the killing of a Western soldier.

A massive military offensive - Operation Anaconda - which finished two weeks ago, claimed the lives of nine US soldiers in the rugged Shahi Kot valley of Paktia.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jonathan Charles
"This is a very significant operation indeed"
See also:

09 Apr 02 | South Asia
US soldier killed in Afghan attack
09 Apr 02 | South Asia
Soldiers face 'bounty' threat
03 Apr 02 | South Asia
UK marines arrive in Afghanistan
03 Apr 02 | South Asia
UK marines 'face tough challenge'
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