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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Marines Begin Attacks From Afghan Base

DESERT AIRSTRIP, Southern Afghanistan -- More U.S. Marines flooded into their bridgehead near Kandahar on Tuesday as Taliban authority crumbled further and other Afghan leaders discussed a future without the pariah militia.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the goal for the hundreds of Marines was to throttle free movement for Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida operatives and the Taliban protecting him.

The Marines fought their first engagement overnight, sending attack helicopters to fire on a convoy of 15 vehicles heading for the desert airstrip they had seized 24 hours earlier.

As the American flag fluttered atop their compound, once used by bin Laden, helicopter pilot John Barranco said U.S. forces had the upper hand.

"The enemy is pretty much in a reactive, defensive mode at night and we can go on the offensive," he said.

U.S. bombers pounded Kandahar overnight and Afghan tribesmen also squeezed the Taliban, reportedly severing all exit routes to Pakistan, which said America's top enemy would not escape.

"We have not left any possibility open that bin Laden can sneak in," a senior Pakistani government official said.

The U.S.-held airstrip is within striking distance of Kandahar, but reporters taken there were not allowed to disclose its location.

The United States has built a force of more than 600 troops at the airfield, and that number will soon reach 1,000, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

"We are getting closer to 1,000, but I don't think it's there yet," Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters two days after hundreds of Marines began sweeping into the field by air from ships in the Indian Ocean.

While the pressure mounted on the Taliban, which defied the United States by refusing to hand over bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 airliner attacks, talks began in Germany on a new government in Kabul. Speedy success at the talks is essential because of the Taliban's dramatic fall after seven weeks of U.S. bombing that turned the tables in favor of the Northern Alliance.

Vowing to fight the Americans until the last breath, Taliban forces showed no sign of giving up Kandahar, where supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar founded the militia in 1994.

Two weeks ago they held 90 percent of Afghanistan. Now they hold a shrinking swathe of heavily mined desert and mountains.

Omar was still in the ancient walled city and former royal capital, the Taliban said, but it gave no clue to the whereabouts of the Saudi-born militant bin Laden. Washington believes he is in the area; others say he may be hiding out in remote mountains or may have even slipped away.

A local news agency said 5,000 anti-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen had taken Spin Boldak on the border with Pakistan.

In Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, hundreds of al-Qaida prisoners died as the alliance and U.S. bombers crushed a revolt.

U.S. President George W. Bush has vowed not to rest until bin Laden and his allies are caught for allegedly masterminding the New York and Washington attacks that killed nearly 4,000 people.

But, perhaps sensing victory soon, he raised the specter of a possible second front in the war against terrorism. Asked how he viewed Iraq, Bush told reporters:

"If you develop weapons of mass destruction that you want to terrorize the world, you'll be held accountable."

Russia also said the fight against terror had only begun.

Tehran slammed the presence of foreign troops in its neighbor Afghanistan, where it fights for influence, and former Afghan premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who lives in Iran, called the Bonn talks a U.S. ploy to further its influence.

"Only groups fitting U.S. requirements and interests have been invited," he said. "Problems cannot be resolved by a government set up by America, Russia and their puppets."

The Associated Press reported that residents in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar are worried that the deployment of U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan could augur an attack on the city, travelers said Tuesday.

The witnesses also said Taliban authority in Kandahar was eroding, with less patrols by Islamic militiaman and many civilians wishing they would abandon the city.