KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — U.S. Marines hunted Friday for gunmen who attacked their airport base in Kandahar during the first high-security flight of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners to a U.S. base in Cuba, where they will be questioned and possibly tried.
The attack triggered a brief but intense gunbattle, the first on the base since the Marines dug in a month ago.
Marines who were on the front lines during the fighting said the gunmen fired at the C-17 transport plane as it took off from the runway with 20 chained and hooded prisoners on board. Officers at the base, however, said the attack was unconnected to the transfer.
The Marines estimated that eight to 14 people armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles launched the attack from three different positions, getting to about 400 yards from the outer defensive perimeter of the sprawling air base.
Using ravines, ditches and abandoned mud houses as cover, the attackers sent aloft an illumination flare as the C-17 carrying the prisoners to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was taking off, then opened up with gunfire. Intermittent shooting continued for about 40 minutes.
The Marines responded with M-16 assault rifles, grenade launchers and cannons and sent up Cobra attack helicopters to seek the attackers. Eventually, a light armored vehicle went out to an abandoned mud house where some fire came from. No one was found and there were no U.S. casualties. Patrols went out after sunrise, but found no bodies.
The Marines said that they did not believe the attack was directly related to the prisoner flight.
"We kept the movement of the detainees a closely held secret, and we believe the two are completely isolated incidents," said Marine 1st Lt. James Jarvis, spokesman for the Marines at the airport. "The longer we're here, the more enemy forces are going to take their chances."
Some 2,800 troops from the U.S.-led coalition are based at the airport. After Thursday night's flight to Cuba, 30 new prisoners were brought to Kandahar base's mud-walled detention center, ringed by high coils of razor wire, bringing the total to 361.
U.S. authorities plan to ship an undetermined number of prisoners from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network and its Taliban allies to a more secure facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Jarvis said that the first flight of 20 prisoners were of "various nationalities" but gave no other details of their identities or importance.
Authorities took no chances of a bloody uprising. Jarvis said that the prisoners were chained and hooded and brought 10 at a time under heavy guard by soldiers and police dogs to the aircraft.
Although the Taliban lost control of Kandahar and other major cities, security in the country is tentative at best.