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Details Emerge About Mine-clearing Accident

Aired March 6, 2002 - 10:11   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to get back to that breaking news out of Kabul, and that is the situation with that accident, we believe, at this demolition site. CNN now getting word that there are five deaths in connection with that accident. Not sure if those are German deaths or troops belonging to other countries.

Our Nic Robertson is in Afghanistan with the latest.

Nic, hello. What can you tell us?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The information at this stage is still fairly sketchy. At the moment, we are getting it from two different sources. From the German Embassy, a spokesman earlier told us two German soldiers belonging to the ISAF -- that is the International Security and Assistance Force here, the international peacekeeping force -- told us that two German soldiers were killed in an accident at the demolition range. The demolition range in Kabul is an area where ordinance -- unexploded bombs, unexploded missiles -- made safe by troops.

The ISAF spokesman here in Kabul has gone further. He said that this was an exercise involving German and Danish troops, and he confirms that five of those international troops have been killed and several others injured also.

There is also a possibility, we are told from the German embassy here, again a different source, saying that some British soldiers involved in that operation may have been killed.

The operation, we understand, was to diffuse ammunition at that range. The casualties have so far been taken to an ISAF field hospital here in Kabul. The accident, as it is being described, is being described as serious.

At the moment, the death count stands at five. We don't know how that is split between the different nations on the force, but we know from the German embassy here that it does involve two German fatalities.

KAGAN: Nic, there are about 1,200 German troops serving in Afghanistan right now, as I understand it.

ROBERTSON: That's right: 1,200 German troops. They make up one quarter of the total ISAF contribution here. There are some 4,800 International Security and Assistance Force troops inside Afghanistan, and most of them are deployed around the capitol, Kabul. They started arriving just before Christmas late last year. Many of them are involved in patrolling the streets and doing just what we understand these troops were doing today, which is making safe unexploded ordinance -- bombs. This country has had 23 years of war, as we have heard, on many occasions; that left a lot of unexploded ordinance, not only around the cities, around the countryside. These troops have been involved in making the environment here not only for themselves, but for Afghans making that environment safer.

It appears to have been an operation to make that environment safe that has caused this accident today.

KAGAN: Nic Robertson, in Afghanistan, thank you. We will come back to you as more information becomes available. Thank you -- Leon.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We are fortunate enough to have already provided our military analyst Maj. Don Shepperd with us this morning. We were planning to talk about some topics -- we will get to them as well -- but now that we have this breaking news, let's talk about this operation, if we can, briefly.

It strikes me first of all as something I didn't hear before that there international forces who are there to provide security are also there working on mine clearing.

MAJ. DON SHEPPERD, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, mines are a tremendous problem in this whole area, and no matter how many times you have been over the ground, there are still mines there. It is very, very dangerous work. You've got metal detectors, but a lot of these mines don't show up on metal detectors, so it's the probing and finding each one of them. Even after you plow an area, it is still dangerous work. We have seen the results of this. Obviously, it is tough.

HARRIS: Have you ever seen one of these demolition fields where they get rid of these things? How do they do this? Do they take them out, dump them, and pile them up, and blow them up, or what?

SHEPPERD: Basically, that's the idea, yes. But all sorts of things can happen. If you are trying to blow them up, static discharges can set them off. I don't know how this particular explosion was set off, but it is just dangerous work, Leon.

HARRIS: Interesting. So in that case, then, perhaps we are lucky that we haven't heard about this kind of thing happening before.

SHEPPERD: Indeed. Indeed. I just got back from Vietnam last year, and we were out with a North Vietnamese -- or Vietnamese -- mine-clearing operation, and it really is. It is going piece by piece, sticking a stick in, and then probing around and digging it up, and then collecting them -- all dangerous work; bad things can happen in any step of that.

HARRIS: Let's talk about this Operation Anaconda. You saw some of Martin Savidge's report. What we have also done is we have culled some of the extra tapes that Marty and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) filed with us. So it is incredible stuff. Let's take a first look at some of this operation going from cave to cave and clearing these caves out. Let's take a look and listen to this.

What we saw at the beginning of this looked almost like something of a postcard shot. You hear the creek bubbling in the background, and then you see this explosion. I think I got a chance here, for the first time, at least for me to see just how small these caves are that these troops are actually going out there to find.

SHEPPERD: Some of them are small, some of them are really sophisticated. But the ones that they were shooting at here in these pictures were very small caves. This is great reporting by CNN and by Martin Savidge. It is the first time we have been with soldiers and getting a feeling for what is really going on on the battlefield. This is standard light infantry work and very, very dangerous.

HARRIS: So explain to us exactly how this operation would go.

SHEPPERD: Basically, you insert the people on the ground after reconnaissance, ensuring that it is as safe as you can to get the people in. Things can go wrong; you cab be surprised. Then they get out, and they start their operations in a plan basis. They have supporting fires, so it is not just people going out and searching at random; they know what they are doing in accordance with the plan.

The weapon that we saw fired at the cave, although I can't tell exactly, was probably an M-136 Army; it's a primary light anti-tank weapon.

HARRIS: Right there?

SHEPPERD: Yes. It could be an XM141 bunker defeat weapon. It could be a shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon from the Marines. I can't tell just by looking at it or the munition.

HARRIS: What kind of punch does that pack?

SHEPPERD: It's got a punch. It's 84 mm, so it's like a huge mortar. And when it gets in there, shrapnel goes everywhere, destroys people and things that are in the opening.

But it is hard to hit something with this. You fire it from a long distance, and getting it in the opening is the key. You may have to take many shots before you do it.

HARRIS: How long a distance away?

SHEPPERD: It looks to me like they were shooting from at least a half mile away. The range of these weapons can go up to accuracy around a mile. They can go further, three miles, but within a mile is what you want to shoot. And the closer you get, the more accurate you are.

HARRIS: So from half a mile away, you have you to look at an opening, as we saw there in this tape, that was perhaps maybe 5, 6 feet across?

SHEPPERD: Yes. And remember, you are focussing on the opening and trying to get it right in the opening. And further, people are shooting at you while you are shooting. It is just dangerous light infantry work. This is what our soldiers do.

HARRIS: So the troops have got to go in, first of all. Do they go into the cave first and then come back out and then do that?

SHEPPERD: No, they will shoot into the cave first, and then they'll go in afterwards to see what's in there, if at all possible.

Again, you saw here this is infantry work because it is hard to get a bomb in an opening like that, that's on a sheer face. There are certain ways that you can do it, but Army is the way to do this one.

HARRIS: I want to take a look. We have some more tape right now. I want to show some tape that we've got here that gives us a good idea of the terrain that they are dealing with here. Can you tell what they are flying in right now in this?

SHEPPERD: This is a CH-47. It could be a MH-47. They are the same type of helicopter as the Chinook built by Boeing. It's a great helicopter. It's not invulnerable, as we have seen, but basically can carry up to 33 troops -- at these altitudes, probably many fewer troops, probably half that many at a time.

HARRIS: Look at this shot here of the terrain. You see just how craggy this is.

SHEPPERD: This looks like the Colorado ski areas. You can think of it as the Colorado ski areas. It looks like making an attack in Vail or Aspen -- something of that sort. Lots of places to hide. For people that are going to get you when you are most vulnerable -- they are going to wait till you go into a hover, they are going to shoot at you, and they are going to try to hit you while you are in the hover and certain people on the ground.

HARRIS: Is it possible? Is it easy for these choppers to land on these -- because these slopes seem to be pretty steep.

SHEPPERD: It is always difficult. They have to find a flat landing area, in this case, to get troops in. But it is high altitude. They have to reduce their weight to get in there. You are operating at the upper limit of what the helicopter can do. So if they try to make quick takeoffs and tight turns, it's very difficult.

HARRIS: I don't know if we have the video handy, but keep in mind that shot would be shown there over the landscape. These troops are also operating at night.


HARRIS: And they are using night scopes, for instance, like here. They are using night scopes both to navigate in the air and on the ground. That has to be incredibly difficult. SHEPPERD: It is. Quite frankly, we would rather fight at night, in many cases, than we would in the the daytime, because the other side can't fight as well. We can see better at night than the other side. No matter how you cut it, it is very difficult and very dangerous to fly at night. It is difficult to fly helicopters. Depth perception becomes a problem. But we train constantly at this type of thing, and we now own 24 hours of the clock. We used to be able fight only in the day.

HARRIS: In this particular case, in this scenario, in this arena here, is fighting at night an advantage?

SHEPPERD: It is an advantage as far as getting people in. You would rather go in at night because fewer people can see you to shoot at you. But as you saw, they shot at us the other day at night, and they hit us and downed the helicopters. So if they are lying in wait for you and planning to get you, they are going to get you when you go into your hover and put troops in. They are going to shoot you when you are most vulnerable. So you are never out of sight; you are always vulnerable in these operations.

HARRIS: Absolutely amazing stuff. Congratulations to our crew for getting out there and shooting that stuff. It's fantastic.

SHEPPERD: Great stuff. Great stuff.

HARRIS: It has to bring back some memories for you.

SHEPPERD: It does. It is like D-Day. In D-Day, we took people in in the ocean, in those vehicles, the landing vehicles; in this case, it is helicopters.

HARRIS: Maj. Don Shepperd, thank you very much. Appreciate the insight.

SHEPPERD: Thank you.Stick around well talk with you quite a bit.

HARRIS: Daryn.

KAGAN: We want to bring our viewers up to day on the breaking news situation out of Kabul, Afghanistan. Five peacekeepers killed in a demolition, a joint mine-clearing operation that was taking place in Kabul. We are getting word that two of the five peacekeepers who were killed were German. Not sure on the nationalities of the other three, but we do know that German, Danish, and British forces were also involved in this operation.




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