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UK, U.S. forces on air base mission

Royal Marine
British Royal Marines on exercise in Oman prior to the Afghan deployment  

KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Eight C-130 aircraft carrying 160 U.S. and British forces have landed at an airfield outside Kabul to secure and inspect it for possible use in aid missions.

Some of the troops will provide security at the Bagram air base, while others inspect its suitability for a large-scale humanitarian operation, U.S. officials told CNN.

Six British C-130s and two from the United States brought the forces -- including 100 members of Britain's elite Royal Marines -- in at around 5:30 p.m. local time Thursday (1300 GMT).

British government sources said the forces did not meet any resistance when they arrived at the Bagram base. The British troops will secure the airport and then establish a pathway into Kabul, the sources said.

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Their task would not be a traditional peacekeeping role, but one of clearing a corridor for aid agencies such as the World Food Programme to take badly-needed supplies to hundreds of thousands of refugees otherwise facing starvation.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said the marines had a mainly humanitarian role.

"They are not there in a policing role," Straw told BBC Radio. He said the main task of the troops "is to secure Bagram airport...and make it safe for humanitarian and diplomatic missions amongst many other things."

In Paris, the French defence ministry announced on Friday it would send a first contingent of troops as part of the international aid effort.

Officials said 60 soldiers would leave the Istres air base in southern France for Uzbekistan at 10:30 a.m. (0930 GMT).

They are expected to travel on to the city of Mazar-e Sharif in northeast Afghanistan, which Northern Alliance troops captured a week ago at the start of a rout of forces of the Taliban from large areas of the country.

"This operation consists in establishing a secure base in Mazar-i-Sharif to facilitate the re-establishment of infrastructure and normal living conditions in the northern part of Afghanistan," a ministry statement said.

Blair: Campaign "far from over"  

LCI television said the advance element consisted of paratroopers.

News of the British and French deployments came as UK Prime Minister Tony Blair warned the campaign against terrorism was far from over despite his claims that the Taliban were near "collapse".

The first wave of British troops were expected to pave the way for a much larger deployment at any time in the next few days, though defence officials stressed there had been no decision yet.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said that although there were a large number of British troops on standby, "there is no assumption yet that they are definitely going to be deployed."

Up to 4,000 British forces are on standby to go to the region, members of the Second Battalion the Parachute Regiment and other members of 45 Royal Marines Commando.

French Defence Minister Alain Richard said on Thursday the overall size of the French force would be announced in the coming days.

British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said that the military action in Afghanistan had highlighted the need for the European Union to forge a rapid reaction force.

Speaking to the Financial Times newspaper just days before EU defence ministers meet to take stock of plans for a 60,000-strong EU force, Hoon said the 15-nation bloc was not yet pulling its military weight.

"Those events have demonstrated the need to be able to respond quickly, flexibly and effectively to threats that might arise anywhere in the world," Hoon said in the newspaper's Friday edition.

EU leaders have agreed a proposed rapid reaction force should be operational by 2003 to deal with international crises or outbreaks of hostilities.

Hoon said it was no surprise that governments had responded individually to the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign because they knew what equipment and manpower they had available.

But he said Europe had to realise that the U.S. would not intervene in every conflict.

"There needs to be a recognition that we can't always depend on the U.S., that we've got to be contributing to capabilitiesand improving capabilities in a way that isn't possible within the relatively limited national budgets of a series of Europeanstates," Hoon said.


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