BAGRAM, Afghanistan – British marines stormed a compound in an Afghan village, breaking through a stone wall to find rooms piled high with mortars, rockets and heavy weapons they said may have belonged to Al Qaeda or the Taliban.
Marines said Sunday the weapons cache was one of the biggest found by troops who have been scouring southeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border for Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters.
"In the last room, there was a curtain. When I pulled it back, it was like, 'Oh my God,"' Sgt. Buck Ryan told reporters. "It was stacked up to the roof with weapons and ammunition."
More than 10 men were found in the compound. They were questioned by the marines and some were held, though the marines would not say how many.
The cache was found Saturday, when marines on a patrol in the village of Surwipan, 12 miles north of the town of Khost, spotted the compound and became suspicious because of a large antenna array on its roof.
When the marines from Britain's Zulu Company approached the compound, a man peeking out the door suddenly slammed it shut. The marines heard shouting and commotion from inside, so the troops broke in through the stone wall, Ryan said.
The men inside, some wearing military fatigues, surrendered without resistance — though the marines found Kalashnikov assault rifles hidden under benches and ready to fire close at hand. The men destroyed two radios before the marines could get in.
While the site was being secured, a number of white vans were seen driving away from the village.
The Britons spent the next 24 hours counting the weapons found stored in five or six rooms and searching them for booby traps. On Sunday, they stacked up box after box of rockets and ammunition in the compound's courtyard, where chickens ran about in the dirt.
The armory included hundreds of large mortar rounds and rockets, thousands of recoilless rocket rounds and 65,000 rounds of small arms ammunition.
Also found were stacks of rocket launchers, several anti-aircraft machine guns and several large mortar launchers. Much of the equipment was new.
There were also several boxes of plastic explosives as well as timers, detonation cord and other equipment for making bombs and booby traps, said Sgt. Colin Hill, Zulu Company's munitions expert.
The arms "may belong to the Al Qaeda or Taliban," said Maj. Richard Stephens. The stash was far beyond the weaponry that villages often have for their defense, he said.
Villagers told the marines that enough arms to fill five trucks had been kept in the compound, but that men came recently and took most of it away, Ryan said. The remainder amounted to nearly two truckloads.
Tensions were high in the village during the raid and afterward. As the soldiers secured the compound, villagers stood nearby and shouted at them. As the marines sifted through the stash, villagers fired off guns outside, though not toward the soldiers, marines said.
The troops called in an A130 gunship plane, which circled overhead during the night, dropping flares, but did not open fire.
"The crowd outside was very hostile," Marine Liam Armstrong said. "We were afraid they would throw a grenade over the wall."
British Marines and U.S. special forces searching along the Pakistani border have found almost no Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters in the past weeks. They have uncovered a number of stores of weapons thought to have been left behind by fighters.
"It's the best thing we've had so far," Armstrong said of the Surwipan find. "It's given us all a huge buzz. This came as a surprise."