Hundreds of heavily-armed U.S. Marines swept into Kandahar airport by land and air before dawn on Friday, to secure the airfield and its facilities. While in eastern Afghanistan, Afghan tribal forces backed by U.S. bombers, pressed their attacks against al-Qaida positions in the Tora Bora area.
The Marines moved out of their base at Camp Rhino southwest of Kandahar early Friday. Their mission is to clear the airport of any booby traps or mines as well was to engage any al-Qaida or Taleban fighters who may still be in the area. Initial reports say the Marines have not encountered any resistance.
The operation came a week after Kandahar, the last Taleban stronghold in Afghanistan, fell to opposition forces.
The Marines say they will use only part of the airport and they intend to return it to civilian control. Local Afghan officials say they hope to reopen the airport perhaps as early as next week.
The Pentagon says there is enough useable runway at the airport to allow C-130 cargo planes to take off and land. A large bomb crater will have to be filled in and the runway resurfaced before larger planes can use the airfield. Debris must also be removed from the runway and taxiways before operations can begin.
Military and aid officials both say that securing the airport will provide not only a new base for U.S. military flights to Afghanistan, but could help in the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Afghan people.
Meanwhile, senior U.S. military officials say they believe Osama bin Laden may be surrounded, in a cave complex in eastern Afghanistan.
The unnamed officials told U.S. television they think he is in the Tora Bora area where U.S. and Afghan tribal forces have been battling al-Qaida fighters since Monday.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumseld, however, has cautioned that many al-Qaida fighters may have slipped out of the Tora Bora area and may have already crossed the Pakistani border, just a few kilometers away.
In day and night attacks B-52 bombers and an AC-130 gunship pounded away at the al-Qaida positions. Anti-Taleban commanders say one U.S. raid accidentally wounded several of their fighters.
Al-Qaida fighters say they intend to fight to the death.
Two deadlines to surrender passed on Wednesday and Thursday with no signs that the fighters are giving up.