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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 19:11 GMT
Afghan force takes shape
British marines in Afghanistan
The marines are the vanguard of the multinational force
Uniformed British troops are on the streets of Afghanistan as the vanguard of a UK-led multi-national security force.

The troops will shoulder much of the burden of peacekeeping activities, with up to 1,500 deployed in the ravaged country.

One of the first task of the marines will be to provide security for the swearing-in of the interim government on Saturday.

UK marines in Afghanistan
Troops are to provide security for government
The British officer in charge of the troops insists his men are aware of the sensitivity among Afghans to the presence of foreign soldiers.

A United Nations Security Council vote on Thursday gave the go-ahead for the stabilisation force to operate out of the Afghan capital Kabul.

The 15-member council agreed unanimously the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will be led on the ground by the UK.

On Friday some of about 50 marines were escorting convoys of foreign diplomats on the hour-long drive from Bagram airbase to the city, correspondents reported.

A further 150 marines are expected to join them in time for the inauguration of the new Afghan government on Saturday.

The multinational force will be under overall US military authority, with the promise of American assistance in an emergency.

Six-month mandate

The marines, who landed in Afghanistan shortly before the UN vote, are the first deployment of what could be a force numbering between 3,000 and 5,000 arriving at the end of January with a six-month initial mandate.

Germany said on Friday it would contribute up to 1,200 soldiers to the force.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford, in Kabul, said the marines had arrived for a mission which has not yet been fully defined.

"There is as yet no agreement with the new administration about the soldiers' role beyond tomorrow," he said.

"Officially, they'll be here to assist the new government with security and to reassure the population of the capital. But no-one is yet sure exactly how that will work in practice."

He added that there were still fears for the soldiers' safety: "They will operate without helmets or armour, in a city full of guns."

'Distinct force'

"It is the initial stage of ISAF. We are here to start providing security and assistance," company commander Major Matt Jones told reporters at the air base.

The UN resolution authorises ISAF troops to use force where necessary.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that UK forces were already making a difference on the ground and had an essential role to play in stabilising the future for Afghanistan.

But he was at pains to stress that the international community wanted to assist rather than dictate.

"We will support them for the long term but it is their country, it is their future and our role is to help the people in Afghanistan to build a fairer and better future there - that future controlled and governed by the people there."

Possible force contributors
New Zealand
Czech Republic
The UN resolution also calls on the victorious Northern Alliance to withdraw its troops from Kabul, in accordance with the agreement reached last month at a multi-ethnic conference in Bonn, Germany.

But Afghanistan's Interim Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim said the troops would have no authority to disarm belligerents, interfere in Afghan affairs or use force.

Afghanistan's new leader, Hamid Karzai, said the international force should leave "as soon as we have the protection of our borders, of our country and a government chosen by the Afghan people".

Meanwhile, there were reports a man claiming to be British was being held in Pakistan on suspicion of being an al-Qaeda member.

The man is in hospital in Peshawar following his arrest after crossing the border from eastern Afghanistan.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "At first he said he was French but it then emerged he might be British. We are looking into the situation."

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt
"Their presence on the streets makes many uneasy"
British Ambassador to the UN Sir Jeremy Greenstock
"The British-led force must learn to be diplomats"
See also:

21 Dec 01 | South Asia
Thousands held by US-led forces
21 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Terror talks for Putin and Blair
20 Dec 01 | South Asia
Afghan security force's role unclear
20 Dec 01 | South Asia
Pakistan holds senior Taleban official
19 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghan powerbrokers: Who's who
19 Dec 01 | South Asia
Al-Qaeda's new military chief
19 Dec 01 | South Asia
Profile: Major General John McColl
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