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US to send nearly 2,000 Marines to Afghanistan
Updated: 2004-03-26 14:53

The United States will add nearly 2,000 Marines with special operations training to the 11,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to boost security and intensify the hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, defense officials said on Thursday.

The officials told Reuters that most of a major unit of up to 2,200 Marines stationed on warships in the Gulf would be moved to Afghanistan. The Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, are on a seven-ship naval Expeditionary Strike Group, led by the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp.

"With the weather warming up, it is an opportunity to add forces and press the hunt for al Qaeda and Taliban," said one military official.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have stepped up operations in the remote, mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of Operation Mountain Storm.

American-led forces are seeking al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who is blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and other key fugitives.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Pentagon Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference on Thursday that in addition to the hunt for guerrillas, the United States wanted to beef up security ahead of elections scheduled for summer in Afghanistan.

"A couple of events (are) happening in Afghanistan that we want to ensure there's appropriate security for," Myers said.


"As you know, they're going to be elections some time this summer, perhaps late summer ... And we want to make sure that event goes well," he told reporters.

"There are still pockets of Taliban and al Qaeda that need to be dealt with," Myers added.

The Wasp strike group, carrying 2,000 to 2,200 Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, left North Carolina on Feb. 19 for a scheduled six-month deployment in the Gulf region and arrived in recent days, officials said.

"Some of the those Marines will participate in and support operations in Afghanistan," said another defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The United States, beefing up its forces in the region, already has 2,000 other Marines inside Afghanistan as part of the 11,000-strong U.S. military contingent there.

Officials provided no timetable for the new deployment and said the exact number from the Wasp group who will be sent into Afghanistan depended on the circumstances on the ground and requirements identified by commanders.

Marine Corps officials said the troops were trained for special operations missions, and that the Wasp, resembling a small aircraft carrier, carried attack helicopters and Harrier fighter jets. Officials gave no further details about the Marines' possible missions.

Under an initiative begun by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Marines are being trained to join Army Special Forces soldiers in operations in what U.S. officials call the global war on terrorism.

A Navy official said four of the seven ships in the group are positioned in the Gulf: the Wasp, the guided missile cruiser USS Yorktown, the dock landing ship USS Whidbey Island, and the amphibious transport ship USS Shreveport.

The official said two others are in the north Arabian Sea: the guided missile cruiser USS Leyte Gulf and the guided missile destroyer USS McFaul. The official declined to identify the location of the final vessel in the group, the attack submarine USS Connecticut.

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