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Kamikaze Camels Stir Fears at Camp Rhino

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.

CAMP RHINO, Afghanistan — On a cardboard calendar at a desert foxhole manned by U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, a red pen marks December 4 as the night of the "Camel Attack."

Camel attack?

Yes, that's what Lance Corporal Jesse Mendoza and his unit wrote, half seriously and half jokingly, on the calendar in their "fighting hole" on the fringe of their base in southern Afghanistan.

"It was a pretty crazy night," Mendoza recalled.

"I had my NVGs (night vision goggles) on and I saw a big old camel running in the compound," the 20-year-old from Fresno, California said, a hint of a grin appearing through the opening of his black balaclava.

The beast's romp caused such a stir that several Marines poured a torrent of gunfire at it. But they found neither hide nor hair of it later, either because they missed or because small arms were not enough to bring it down.

The camel kept everyone busy and warm on a night where temperatures dropped near freezing. But why does a seemingly harmless humped creature of the desert stir such terror?

The Soviets had to contend with the threat of Kamikaze camels during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Marines said. Intelligence officers had just days before given briefings here on the threat of camels wired to explode.

The Afghan mujahideen fighters would strap dynamite on a camel and send it into a Soviet base, setting it off with a remote detonator when it wandered near troops or equipment, said Lieutenant Patrick English, acting commander of the company in which Mendoza serves.

"It was simply a tactic. I don't know how good it was," English said.

The timing of the briefing was almost spooky.

"A couple of days earlier they told us about camels, and sure enough we had a camel," Mendoza remembered.

Sergeant Erik Knox, a 37-year-old from Chicago who said he signs up with the Marines every time he gets divorced, was also slightly alarmed.

"The fact that it was in our compound really freaked us out," he said.

"We heard the shots. The camel wasn't in our range of fire" and Knox's men did not open fire, he said.

"You've got to be extremely careful and cautious when you're in the compound" because you could hit fellow Marines, he warned.

And there was something a little troubling about the whole thing.

"They put a hell of a lot of rounds in it but they never found it," Knox said.

Mendoza also thinks they hit the camel because they had marked it with eight or nine lasers. But it seems they just couldn't kill the beast.

A crazy night, all agreed.

Two nights later, it was even scarier.

December 6 was the night the Taliban or Al Qaeda probed the perimeter of the base, known as Camp Rhino, and the Marines replied by firing dozens of mortars. No bodies were reported found the next day.

The same night a helicopter blew up and caught fire but nobody was seriously hurt.

The place seemed as weird and wild as the song by the Eagles, "Hotel California".

Indeed, the warren of foxholes which serves as home for Mendoza and his Marine buddies bears the song's name.

"Welcome to the Hotel California... Such a lovely place. MRESs (Meals Ready to East) served 24 hours. No Taliban allowed. No Vacancy. You can check out but you can never leave."

The few pleasures are desert sunrises and sunsets and clear starry nights.

"Time doesn't exist for us. One day blends into the next. Christmas will just be another day," said Sergeant Espera, another Californian who leads a squad within English's company.

He was getting ready to head out on an all-night patrol in search of wayward Taliban and Al Qaeda guerrillas or traces of them.

As for that camel, Mendoza thinks it got the last laugh.

"The last thing the camel did was look back and smile," he said.

"It was one bad camel."