Pool Report: Marines Set Up Staging Area Outside Kandahar

This is a dispatch from the Afghanistan reporters' "pool," a Pentagon-authorized system that allows a single journalist to file for all accredited news organizations.

WITH THE U.S. MARINES IN AFGHANISTAN — U.S. Marines in helicopters and light armored vehicles set up a staging area closer to Kandahar on Monday to make it easier to block escape routes for Taliban and Al Qaeda followers of Usama bin Laden.

Kandahar, the last stronghold of the Taliban militia, fell Friday to opposition forces allied to the United States. But many fighters with bin Laden's Al Qaeda network were believed to be still in the area.

More than a dozen helicopters dropped off Marines, food, water and weapons at a desert location near Kandahar where light armored vehicles and Humvees had gathered since the morning.

The helicopters had picked up a number of Marines at a forward patrol base on their way north from Camp Rhino, the main base seized on Nov. 25.

"It feels very good to be here. Everybody wants to contribute," said Marine Major Tom Impellitteri, 32, of Pennsylvania, as a group of Marines gathered in a rocky area beneath a jagged mountain.

The staging area is more than two dozen miles from Kandahar, officers said.

No tanks had moved to the staging area, contrary to reports by the Afghan Islamic Press, which may have mistaken them for light armored vehicles. Reporters have seen no U.S. tanks in southern Afghanistan.

Heavily-armed but swift hunter-killer patrols have been moving to cut off lines of communication, supply and escape to and from Kandahar for the last week.

But officers said the new staging area makes it easier for patrols to fan out for manhunts. Such patrols are armed with 50-caliber machine guns, anti-tank missiles and grenade launchers.

Before dawn last Friday, these patrols killed seven Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters and destroyed three of their vehicles after one vehicle raced toward the Marines at a roadblock in the Kandahar area.

Since Kandahar fell, the Marines have turned their attention toward killing or capturing Al Qaeda leaders. Marines above the rank of sergeant are carrying photographs of key members to help in the task.

"What you've seen is the moving of Marines and assets up north ... closer to Kandahar to block possible avenues and exits," Captain Stewart Upton said.

"We're still looking for Al Qaeda, and any Taliban that still have their weapons or don't drop them will die," Upton told reporters at Camp Rhino.

The Marines have begun clearing ground at Camp Rhino for a temporary "detention facility" to hold Al Qaeda or Taliban members. The only prisoner for now is John Walker, an American who was captured fighting with the Taliban.

A group of journalists watched more than a dozen helicopters — CH-56 Super Stallions, CH-46 Sea Knights, Hueys and Cobra attack gunships — take off on the mission from the airfield at Camp Rhino.

Forklifts loaded them with boxes of both illumination and high explosive rounds fired from mortars, TOW anti-tank missiles, crates of claymore mines and tripods for 50-caliber machine guns as well as food and water.

The journalists were briefed on the flights to the new staging area by a few colleagues who were allowed to travel on the helicopters as well as by the Marine officers back at Camp Rhino.

Under military ground rules, reporters are not allowed to disclose exact numbers of troops involved in operations or details of ongoing and future operations.