BAGRAM, Afghanistan – Some 60 of Britain's elite Royal Marines landed in Afghanistan early Wednesday as the forerunner of Britain's first overseas combat deployment since the Gulf War a decade ago.
Shielded by darkness, the troops of 45 Commando Royal Marines came pouring off a hulking C-130 transport plane about 12:30 a.m. at Bagram Air Base, about an hour's drive north of the capital Kabul.
Another 60 Royal Marines, whose base is in Arbroath, Scotland, were to follow later Wednesday morning.
The Royal Marines are trained in mountain warfare and will join the U.S.-led coalition hunting pockets of dissident al-Qaida and Taliban fighters holed up in rugged areas of Afghanistan.
The troops will spend about two weeks training and getting used to the altitude at Bagram before joining any combat operations, British officials said.
The troops hurriedly unloaded their massive rucksacks and weapons from the transport plane, joining some 200 advance troops from the unit who have been setting up camp here.
The British force should number about 1,700 soldiers by the week's end, said Lt. Col. Paul Harradine, a Marines spokesman. The unit arrived here on the 20th anniversary of the Falklands War, in which 45 Commando Royal Marines participated.
Many of the commandos were smiling but others appeared nervous as they were greeted by fellow Royal Marines on the tarnmac and by an army of British media.
As the C-130's engines roared, the troops climbed onto trucks and drove away in the darkness.
The arrival of the Marines had been delayed so that mine-clearing teams could make sure their camp was safe. The Bagram area is considered one of the most heavily mined areas of the world and engineers have been working day and night to clear the area.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon announced the latest deployment in the House of Commons last month. Eventually, 45 Commando will be joined by 29 Commando regiment Royal Artillery, 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers and elements of the Royal Logistics Regiment.
Three Chinook helicopters of 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force, will also be deployed.
British troops already make up the bulk of peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan, and special operations units have been operating in Afghanistan since the early days of the war. British forces have also participated in reconnaissance and air-to-air refueling flights.